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UTOPIA Finishes City Fiber Build, in Time for Subscriber Surge

muninetworks.org - March 19, 2020

UTOPIA Fiber announced last week that it had completed network construction in Layton, Utah’s ninth largest city. The announcement comes just in time for increasing reliance on home broadband connections as more people shelter-in-place in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Already, UTOPIA has seen a rise in sign-ups for its regional open access fiber network, even setting a new daily record. While some of the growth can be attributed to Salt Lake City’s booming population, many new subscribers point to the need to work from home as the reason they decided to sign up. Swelling Demand On Tuesday, UTOPIA’s sales team signed on 88 new subscribers, nearly doubling the network’s previous one-day record of 48. According to UTOPIA, most new subscribers said that the ability to work remotely — especially considering Covid-19-related restrictions and closures — drove their decision to connect. In addition to the current pandemic, some of this increase is tied to population growth in the region. Since the new year, UTOPIA’s monthly sign-ups have hovered around 600-700, exceeding the network’s typical average of 500 new subscribers per month. As we reported earlier today, many networks are starting to see growth in home broadband usage as workplaces and schools close across the county in an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus. However, it’s too early to say exactly how the Covid-19 outbreak will impact broadband subscriptions and Internet traffic going forward. Building a UTOPIA The completion of UTOPIA’s fiber network in Layton, worth $23 million, will bring increased access to vital online education, remote work, and telehealth services to the city of 80,000 people. Approximately one third of Layton households are already connected to UTOPIA’s open access network. They can subscribe to one of 11 Internet service providers offering speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second. “Fiber connectivity cements Layton City as a great place to live, work, and play,” shared Alex Jensen, Layton City Manager, in UTOPIA’s press release. Layton isn’t the only Utah community with connectivity ready for the predicted rise in demand. UTOPIA already offers residential services in 14 cities in the state, and it’s also working with Idaho Falls across the border in Idaho to connect households. For more on UTOPIA Fiber, view our past articles or listen to episode 331 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.   Tags: utopiaquarantineutahidaho fallstelecommutingopen access

Service Providers Start to Adjust to Increased Demand, New Environment

muninetworks.org - March 19, 2020

With everything from shelter-in-place orders to partying on Florida beaches, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the country have had to figure out their own responses to Covid-19. We reached out to a mix to get a sense of what they are seeing and how they are adapting.

Some ISPs have cut all installs and have disbanded their offices as much as possible to work remotely and try to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Others have detailed new protocols. Almost all are seeing some increases in bandwidth usage. Lots of ISPs have special, temporary offers to get low-income families signed up during this time of need. Bandwidth Booms When it comes to usage, we are seeing a lot more activity. We don't have enough evidence to confirm our recent predictions, but things are more or less where we expected. Most networks usually have peak activity in evening prime time hours, and that remains true. The daytime peaks are expanding, but 4K streaming is keeping those evening peaks much larger.  At Sonic, California's largest independent ISP, they have seen an increase of 25 percent in evening peak, which is remarkable, but well within the capacity of their network to handle it. Week over week @Sonic internet traffic, annotated. #COVID19 #WFH #gigabit #fiber pic.twitter.com/eUKL9FGXMk — Dane Jasper (@dane) March 18, 2020 In talking to a few fiber and well-regarded fixed wireless ISPs, they are not seeing any signs that their network cannot handle the growing demand. Many have reported that they are performing middle mile upgrades earlier than they had planned, but they believe they can stay on top of growing usage. That said, many schools (K-12 and higher education) are still preparing their online curriculum and we'll see how that changes the numbers over time. In one city with free wireless in parks, a common day in March would see about 500 devices connected, but they are seeing 3,500 currently.  We also have some data courtesy of NetBlazr in Boston, which is overwhelmingly residential traffic. (We've discussed their urban fixed wireless model on the Community Broadband Bits podcast previously.) The first chart shows daily peaks in traffic. The next two charts show how the shape of demand has shifted throughout a day - Feb 13th is on top and March 18th on bottom. We have heard some reports — nothing we can be certain about — that in some areas where schools may be more active in getting kids connected remotely, the slow upstream of the residential networks is creating problems for the software they are using. We hope to have more information in the coming days and weeks. We are working with several partners to try to measure this with a survey and speed test. Please take a few minutes to do it and spread it around! Managing Growth One of the few promising developments is that many more people suddenly see the value of high-quality Internet access. We have talked to several fiber-optic ISPs — all in areas with active Covid-19 outbreaks — and they have reported new records in single day or weekly sign-ups. Many have not surveyed the new soon-to-be-subscribers, but one had and reported they recognized the value of a better connection for new patterns of working at home for parents and remote learning for children. In our discussions, it seems like the areas where cases are not yet confirmed are not experiencing a similar surge. The challenge for many ISPs right now is how to handle growth currently. Here in Minnesota, underground work has just become feasible again. Some ISPs have temporarily halted all new installs. RS Fiber Co-op in Minnesota is one of several that has a new protocol for sanitizing, following CDC guidelines, and is connecting only homes where no one is ill or has traveled recently.  Given the increasing need for high-quality Internet access to keep the economy and educational opportunities at least partially alive, I suspect most ISPs will have to find ways of safely sending techs into homes for installs and repairs. This probably isn't going to stop soon. Tags: hbctelecommutingsonicwispquarantiners fiber coopdigital dividebandwidthuploadsymmetryeducation

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 399

muninetworks.org - March 18, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 399 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Mark Howell, former CIO from Concord, Massachusetts about the history and benefits of Concord's broadband project. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Mark Howell: People are much more understanding that their Internet connection is the most important part of their telecommunications package, and once they have that they can do just about whatever they want. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 399 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. For this episode, we're joined by Mark Howell, former CIO from Concord, Massachusetts. The town which celebrates its historical relevance also has the benefit of a fiber optic community network. Christopher and Mark talk about the history of the network, including why Concord decided to develop the infrastructure, how they funded it, and the local enthusiasm that drove the project. Jess Del Fiacco: Mark also describes what it was like to enter the Internet access business and review some of the challenges they faced. Mark has words of advice for other communities considering a similar investment. You can learn more details about the network in the case study, citizens take charge. Concord, Massachusetts builds a fiber network from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Now here's Christopher talking with Mark Howell, former CIO from Concord, Massachusetts. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Today I'm speaking with someone from another M-state, not an M-city though. Mark Howell, former CIO for the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show Mark. Mark Howell: Thanks Chris. I'm really happy to be here. Christopher Mitchell: Well, I've been following from afar your progress out there in Massachusetts, one of a really good handful of municipal networks across the state, and so I'm excited to learn more about it. But let's start by just asking people to remember that Concord is a fairly important place in the history of the United States, and you could tell us a little bit about it so we have a sense of the area we're talking about. 2:01 Mark Howell: Absolutely. Concord is one of the oldest communities in the country. It was first settled in 1635. And it's located about 15 miles northwest of Boston, and it's probably best known as the destination of the midnight ride of Paul Revere in 1775 on the eve of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. And Concord is also the home of Louisa May Alcott, the famous author of the Little Women book, now a movie as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Mark Howell: So democracy, literature and ecology are all pretty deeply rooted in this community. It's a medium sized suburban community now about 18,000 people and 25 square miles. And it actually has some working farms that are still in operation ever since colonial times. Concord's a New England town, it features an open town meeting form of governance, which is important on our broadband mission. And there's a select board and at town meeting, which is a legislative session that's open to all registered voters. That's where all the really important decisions about the town are made. Christopher Mitchell: It's a town with a lot of history and that's what we're about to discuss. I'll bet it felt like those copper lines dated back quite a bit as well. Mark Howell: Yeah, we absolutely have some very old infrastructure. Some of it's been operating for a good deal of time and that definitely does play into our history with municipal utilities. Christopher Mitchell: So let's dig into that. Why did Concord first get involved with fiber optics? Mark Howell: So we came to it through the electric system. Concord's been operating a municipal electric utility for over a hundred years. The Light Plant as we call it, was originally coal fired generator that was used to generate enough electricity to run the pumps for the sewer system. Concord has a couple of rivers running through it and we needed to get the water out of the center of town from time to time. There were really two main reasons why the Concord Municipal Light Plant decided to build a fiber optic network and then later start an Internet service. 4:09 Mark Howell: The first was to support energy management and load control on the electric distribution grid. And the second was because we recognize that telecommunication services would help make Concord an attractive place for businesses. A number of years ago, back in the early 2000s we had run a program for electrode thermal heating and hot water controllers. And those devices were controlled using phone lines and the equipment that we used to connect those load control switches were getting obsolete and we couldn't get parts to replace it. So we started looking for a new network to enable us to replace that. And that's when the idea of building a fiber optic network came up. Christopher Mitchell: So let's just dig into the water control system briefly to not gloss over that for people who are encountering it for the first time. What was the purpose of that and why did you need to be in communication with it? Mark Howell: So the idea was that we would be able to use these electro thermal storage devices, which are basically just big ceramic bricks that were built into radiators and hot water heaters in people's homes. And the idea was that we could charge up that thermal storage at night using cheap electricity that we could purchase overnight and then use that heat energy during the day to keep the house warm or to heat their domestic hot water. And so we needed to be able to turn those devices on and off on demand, which requires two way communications. Christopher Mitchell: And so you ended up replacing the old system as it aged out within a fiber optic system that was built entirely for electrical uses I guess is what I'm trying to say. Mark Howell: Yeah, exactly. And the idea was to build a smart grid, so this was around 2008, and what we were looking forward to was the ability to be able to do those load control programs and maybe even expand them into things like thermostats. And we even had an idea about controlling pool pumps and things like that. Some of those ideas in the end it didn't work out, but we did end up building the fiber network in order to enable us control anyway. 6:20 Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, this seems like the kind of experimentation that we often associate with Chattanooga where we tend to focus on all the things that have worked very well in Chattanooga. But as we're trying to figure out how to both lower electrical costs and also green the grid so we can be more efficient. These are the sorts of experiments that we need to be trying, right? Mark Howell: Absolutely. No doubt about it. We've learned a lot as we are in that network and discovered quite a few things about leaf cover and how far ZigBee signals will go and where wifi will reach. Because that network was somewhat complicated and involved repeaters that were on street lights that would communicate with electric meters at home as well as the load control switches. And it's still operating today for a number of smart meters. And that's how we do AMI, although we are starting to look at replacing that. Christopher Mitchell: So when you started offering the telecommunications services and tell us how that worked? Mark Howell: So the idea was to build a fiber network to enable us to install these gateways as we call them that would collect information from the electric grid. But in that process we overbuilt the fiber so that we ended up with fiber to the curb in front of all, well 95% of residences in Concord. And at that time the Light Plant director Dan Sack understood that it would be an option to add an Internet service over and above the smart grid. And that was going to be a way to potentially help pay for that fiber investment. Christopher Mitchell: And how did people react to that? Mark Howell: People wanted to do it. The cable companies of course weren't too thrilled and they came out and fought against it. We actually had to pass the authorization for the Light Plant to enter the telecommunications business through town meeting. And that required three separate votes across three different years. And the first year there was quite a bit of pushback from the industry. 8:19 Christopher Mitchell: Did that really catch on among town residents? My impression of town meeting day is that unlike for instance my city where I would say far too few people participate, that people take it seriously out in the New England area? Mark Howell: We do. It wasn't one of the record setting town meetings in terms of tenants. That usually is reserved for things like voting bonds for school buildings. But it was certainly an important issue at that time. And there was a lot of attention paid. Christopher Mitchell: And as you went year after year, was there a change in enthusiasm at all? Mark Howell: Certainly the town's enthusiasm, it was just about a unanimous vote as I recall each time. And the industry basically stopped fighting it after the first vote and after they'd lost that first vote. It wasn't until several years after the vote authorize and telecommunications that the bond was actually put forward to construct the fiber network and that was actually in the 2009 town meeting. Christopher Mitchell: So most of the construction costs were born by the electric utility. Because of the history and the need to manage demand, and then a smaller portion was for the telecom portion. What exactly did that buy? What are the, I think it was $600,000 if I read correctly in the study that David Talbot and others did through the Berkman Klein Center, 2016 study. I meant to have it in front of me, but I forgotten the title of it, but I'm sure that will be noted. Probably in the introduction through the miracle of editing. Mark Howell: Sure. Well, I can cover that in some detail. So Concord actually applied for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding for the project but was denied. So the Light Plant brought a bond authorization request to town meeting for four and a half million dollars to construct the smart grid and build the fiber to the curb. 3.4 million of that was labor and materials for the backbone and distribution network and there was another 500,000 for smart grid equipment and the vehicle and engineering services and that sort of thing. 10:33 Mark Howell: So overall it cost $3.9 million to actually build that fiber network. In 2013 when we decided that we would start an Internet service, I went before town meeting and requested a borrowing authorization of $1 million. And that million dollars was startup equipment for the Internet service, specifically and it was meant to give us some working capital to fund the first couple of years of that program. Christopher Mitchell: Let me just jump in for a second to ask you, if you remember back to that time, was that intimidating for you to be considering going into that? Mark Howell: We did it carefully. I worked with another resident and we did some fairly careful business planning around it, but we were pretty confident that we were going to be able to get to the number of subscribers that we needed to get to, to break even. And in fact the plan that we put in place really did come through. By 2015 we had about 400, well $350,000 in revenue and that was up to 556,016, '17 we were at 700 and by 2018 we were on almost a million dollars. Now 2019 we ended up with about $1.2 million of revenue and that is well over our operating costs. So we're cashflow positive in five years and we just sort of designed our build to do a gradual construction that way. Christopher Mitchell: And so then you actually are doing drops from the fiber pass that you built for the electric system into the home then? 12:08 Mark Howell: Exactly. The smart grid funding paid for fiber to a splice case within four or 500 feet usually of most homes. So we did, the network was designed and built to run basically one fiber strand to each parcel of property in town. Christopher Mitchell: Now I interrupted you. Did you want to go back to the other piece of the funding? Mark Howell: Well we did get a second authorization for a second borrowing of $1 million after we started and that was really looking at sort of the next set of capital investments. Although in the end we haven't needed to draw on that. So at this stage of the game the business is really quite self-sufficient. Christopher Mitchell: And so I guess one of the things I was like to ask is, was it worth it and tell me how you'd convince me if I was skeptical? As you know, I'm not particularly in this case. I mean, to me it seems pretty obvious, but for someone who is skeptical, what would you tell them? Mark Howell: Well, I would tell them that it's a lot easier than it was. At the time that I was planning this in 2013, '14 I felt like there wasn't a ton of information out there about how to do this. It was a relatively new thing. People were not streaming television for example. So when we entered the business with only high speed Internet, we got a lot of questions about what about phone service? What about video? And now a lot of those questions I think have been asked and answered. People are much more understanding that their Internet connection is the most important part of their telecommunications package. And once they have that they can do just about whatever they want. Christopher Mitchell: You enter I think with a pretty ambitious 200 megabits symmetrical service, right? Mark Howell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes we did. Christopher Mitchell: And then you also had a two year agreement, which is something that we don't often see among municipalities. In part because I think when they do focus groups to talk with citizens about what they want. A lot of times whoever wants to be bound by a contract, if you don't have to be? But you want to talk a little bit about the decision making that went into that? 14:11 Mark Howell: Sure. We wanted to use a fixed very simple pricing structure, so we decided on four tiers of service, which we called entry, basic, high speed and ultra. And the idea was that we would hold that price, have no ad-ons or extra fees and charge that simple pricing model to everybody at the same time. So anytime we upgraded the speed, which we did twice, we gave everybody the same new service right away automatically without changing their structure. Mark Howell: The reason that we did charge an installation fee, it was pretty modest. You know by most standards it was $150 which was really just a fraction of what it actually cost us to connect that particular home. And our early termination or contract was written pretty well in favor of the consumers I believe. We had a $240 early term fee that went down $10 a month over your first two years. So by the time the two years ended up you would own nothing if you decided to leave. Mark Howell: And really what we were asking people to do was to commit to about $400 in expense, which helped to ensure that we got people who were serious about taking the service at first. Because we were literally building it one customer at a time. Christopher Mitchell: Did that give you any concerns in terms of Comcast or, I don't even know if you have, which cable company you have, but let's just say that the big cable company and the big telephone company trying to just come in and cut prices to try to deny you customers? 15:57 Mark Howell: We did have that concern. Our pricing wasn't set up to be very much less expensive than Comcast. We came in about, I believe that when, I think David Talbot did this study, but it worked out to be about 15 or 20% below and it was Comcast that was available in our market. So we had some concern about that, but we also had some people who were really interested in cutting the cord. And we found that we had a lot of very highly motivated customers at first. And that was a big part of why we were successful too. The community knew what we were doing. They knew us from the electric service that we'd been delivering to them for years and they really wanted us to succeed. So, and I think that's something that most municipal projects would find would be true for them too. People like the hometown guys. Christopher Mitchell: We definitely see that. You mentioned the revenue targets and being well above the being able to pay your operating costs. What kind of take rate did you end up getting? Mark Howell: So at the moment we're at about 20%. What we tended to do was set targets for how many installations we wanted to do in a year, and that was based on how much staffing we had and what we felt like we could consistently deliver on with the quality. And that number is settled into about 300 installations per year. So a little bit more than one new customer a day. In order to achieve that, we needed to do very little marketing. When we opened up our doors in effect, we send an email blast to a list of people who had indicated an interest ahead of time. We got 300 orders within the first week. So we had a year's worth of work in front of us right off the bat. And it did take us a while to get the processes running in order to do that. Christopher Mitchell: No, that actually leads right into the challenges. And I'm curious, let's say I'm from a nearby town that you like, you're not going to give me bad advice on purpose. And I'm saying, "Hey, what do I need to know? What are the challenges I'm going to face if I want to go down this road?" 18:11 Mark Howell: Well, I think the biggest challenge that communities tend to have are challenges around whether or not a municipal administrations are really still uncertain about the success of building and running a network. And I would definitely tell you that if you're straightforward about it, select some good partners, and don't get out ahead of your skis. In other words, don't try and immediately go to a big percentage of the customers right away. Mark Howell: Learn your business. You can do this. And there's a lot of good partners out there now. Design services are easier to get today than they used to be. The playbook of how to run an Internet services is getting much, much better defined than it was. So I would encourage a community to do that. Municipalities have a lot of good advantages. Typically they already have some database they could use, like the water system, if they don't have an electric utility already. They're used to that customer service. They know how to do horizontal construction and those services are out there. Christopher Mitchell: Now what about the fact that, in particular in New England you have so many smaller towns and does it make sense for each of these towns to be working alone? Or one of the things we always hear is that, I'm sure you're hearing from your neighbors saying, "Hey, why don't you just build it over here?" So how do you think about the pros and cons of working together versus going in alone? Mark Howell: So I believe that New England communities are a bit small generally. Not the cities of course, but the towns themselves to really do this on their own. I do think that it makes sense to join a cooperative or work with neighboring communities on this. Even in Concord, we have about 8,600 residential households. And even if we got 100% of those, I believe that this business would be a little bit smaller than it should be for its own good. I think that there's a big advantage in getting to some scale, particularly when we're talking about technology businesses. And so I'm actually actively working with some of the other operators around the state and we're discussing ways that we might be able to collaborate, cooperate and take advantage of the scale that's available in this kind of business. 20:37 Mark Howell: So I think you can both be local. A lot of it's about the value, some of the things that the community really was happy to see us do or to have policies around that neutrality, around privacy that would ... Around open access that would enable in a ... We were trying to serve everybody equally and I think that really makes a big difference. So it's how you approach it that gives you quite a bit of the advantage. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things you said, it always strikes me as interesting. You know you have a state that's much wider than it is tall, and it seems to me you, you're probably considering working with towns that are a 100 miles away whereas you may have other towns that are 30 miles away but they're in New Hampshire. Is there any thought about going across state lines? Mark Howell: I haven't given that a lot of thought. There's certainly no reason why you couldn't in those communities that are up north. When I think about it from a Concord perspective, I definitely thought about first building to those communities that are immediately adjacent to us. We already have some regional agreements around housing, around public safety, around school departments with those neighboring communities. And those are the ones that really make the most sense. We were working on some of these specifically on public safety radio, which is an application that you can easily carry on a fiber network and improve with Carlyle, which is the community just to the north of us and they happen to also be the community that shares our public access television station and our high school. So it makes a lot of sense to work with them and those are the kinds of things to do. If you happen to be on one of those northern or southern borders of Massachusetts, then sure. I don't think I'd hesitate to cross a line just to do that. Christopher Mitchell: You're also sharing an engineer, right? With south Bedford, if I remember correctly. 22:35 Mark Howell: We are, we had a staffing need. As we were building the business, obviously it's small and stuff is expensive. So I needed a part-time engineer and Bedford needed a part-time engineer. So we shared that resource. And over time we're expecting to deepen that relationship. Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So is there anything else that we should be talking about? Anything I forgot to ask you about? Mark Howell: One of the places where we experienced some really immediate success was with our commercial real estate holders in town. They recognize right off the bat that having a fiber service in their building was going to make their business properties more attractive to those clients that might want to put their offices there. So we have a fair amount of professional office space, knowledge workers and small retailers in town. All of whom were generally underserved by the commercial offerings that were available. Mark Howell: Our first gigabit customer on the Concord network was a coworking space. That wanted to really advertise that they had gigabit Internet service in there. And so we did a custom isolation for them. We also been able to really support a lot of community institutions. We have several private schools in Concord. We were able to provide them with some private V land services. In other words, interconnect multiple buildings from the private school that were in different parts of town. We did the same thing for some daycare center operations. Mark Howell: And really had a focus on making sure that those institutions that make the community provide community services were getting prioritized by our network. And I think that was one of the things that was really appreciated. 24:21 Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think it's a good reminder because, and I'm curious if you felt this pressure as the CIO that the network is inevitably evaluated based on the dollar return. You know, are you hitting the business plan, do you have the right number of customers, relatives to what you forecast and things like that? Whereas these benefits, the reasons you actually build the network, they seem that they can get lost in the shuffle. Mark Howell: I tended to try to keep those really right in front of customers and certainly the feedback that I would get from customers was a real appreciation on that. The other thing that really set us apart, I think and one of the reasons why our churn rate is virtually nonexistent is that we did use local technicians to provide the onsite customer service and installation experience. So people really knew who we were. If we had an issue, we would come out oftentimes with the very same guy that installed that customer service to replace a piece of equipment or just troubleshoot something. And that was the level of service that we could differentiate on and people appreciate it. Mark Howell: We were involved in things like in the video stream for town meetings and with the local PEG access station. And when we built a high school, we installed the fiber for that. So being able to prioritize that and show the community that we were working on the things that were important, not necessarily the things that we're going to drive a lot of bottom line was something that I think was really appreciated and led to a lot of goodwill. Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Well, thank you Mark for taking the time today to share with us your experiences and it sounds like you know, you said there's some potential for the future, so we'll look forward to future announcements. Mark Howell: Yeah, absolutely. Chris, I really appreciate the opportunity. 26:07 Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Mark Howell, former CIO from Concord, Massachusetts about the community's fiber optic network. 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 podcast from ILSR, including Building Local Power, the Local Energy Rules podcast, and the Composting for Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. Jess Del Fiacco: You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 399 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thank you for listening. Tags: transcript

Could This BE Any More Perfect? Lisa Says Goodbye Virtually

muninetworks.org - March 18, 2020

As Senior Researcher Lisa Gonzalez approaches her last few days here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, she took some time to reflect on her eight years with the Community Broadband Networks Initiative. Lisa is our team's secret weapon, and though we are sad to see her go, we wish her the best of luck in her future position with the State of Minnesota. Read her farewell below.


As I write this, it's March 2020 and the world is in the early days of a global pandemic. The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have stranded many students and parents at home where they are working, streaming, and trying to "flatten the curve" to limit infections. As a result, our country's Internet networks are being pushed and tested. In many ways, this sort of situation is an ideal time for this Senior Researcher to pass the torch. With feelings of bittersweet excitement, I'm accepting an opportunity which will allow me to use all the great knowledge I've soaked up at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to work for the State of Minnesota. I'll miss sharing with you stories of local communities, their investments in community broadband networks, and the innovative approaches they take to improve local connectivity. Eight years ago, the country was coming out of the Great Recession, and I had been unemployed for more than a year. As a single parent with two young kids, I was finding that my law degree and limited experience working in politics wasn't helping me find employment at a time when employment was hard for everyone to find. I had even been turned down for a stint as a part-time dog walker! Then I came across a posting for a Research Associate position for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance with a special emphasis on Internet access and telecommunications. When I attended law school, I had planned on focusing on intellectual property law and had developed a curiosity in how the Internet might affect life and work for artists. Years earlier, I had finally earned my theatre degree and wondered how computers and live performances might influence each other. With nothing to lose, I applied and got the job. I'm not ashamed to admit, and Christopher can confirm, that it took a while before I really understood what we were doing. I think that he was stuck with me, desperate for help, and because things were moving slower in those days, he was able to take the time to explain the technical and policy details I needed to understand our mission. Thanks to his patience and guidance, I'm able to take advantage of this new opportunity to help the people of Minnesota. There's been quite a few faces that have passed in and out of the doors of the Institute and the Community Broadband Networks Initiative since I started in 2012. With the exception of its leaders and a few key staff, the organization seems to be the training ground for intelligent and driven people who come here to learn and then take their new knowledge out into the world to make it better. I feel fortunate to have met and worked with so many and have learned more than a little from each person. Now it's my turn. I am immensely proud to have worked with Christopher for so long to have developed a solid, stable program. Our work has helped people in many places and, as I see interest in publicly owned networks grow every year, I know that the Community Broadband Networks Initiative is on the right track. The current team of energetic, intelligent, and creative people can handle the growing surge as more and more local communities and cooperatives investigate and take advantage of the doors opened by publicly owned broadband networks. Go, team, go! I'll forever be thankful to those of you who continued to return to MuniNetworks.org to read the articles, listen to the podcasts, and share the resources. Hopefully, the material has inspired you to inspire other people. I know I've been inspired by all the stories I've shared about local folks taking control of their own destinies, and I'll be checking in daily to see what's new. Like everyone else in the Minneapolis office, I'm telecommuting these days to do my part. While I'm sad to be ending my time at the Institute away from my friends and colleagues at the office, I feel there's a poetry to my last few days at the Institute. After all, there can be no more fitting way for a broadband researcher to leave than with a virtual wave and a remote hug. Tags: institute for local self-reliance

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 398

muninetworks.org - March 18, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 398 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Patrick Grace and David Goodspeed from the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative about their expansion of broadband network and their gig service in a state that has  restrictions. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   David Goodspeed: We went where no one else was going when the for-profits were pulling out, so we came in and really showed what happened 85 years ago and how we truly changed people's lives. Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 398 of The Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Patrick Grace and David Goodspeed from the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative join Christopher to talk about the organization and how they've expanded from electric service to fiber-optic connectivity. Patrick and David discuss operating in a state that has restrictions. They also review challenges they've had, partnerships and financing. Lisa Gonzalez: Now here's Christopher talking with Patrick Grace and David Goodspeed from Oklahoma Electric Cooperative. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today, I'm speaking with two folks from the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, Patrick Grace is the CEO of Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, welcome to the show. Patrick Grace: Happy to be here. Christopher Mitchell: We also have David Goodspeed, the president of OEC, that's the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative fiber. Welcome to the show, David. David Goodspeed: Thank you very much. Christopher Mitchell: It's wonderful to be talking with you. I think it's always a good place to start if you, I'll ask Patrick to tell us a little bit about the region in which you serve in Oklahoma. Where is it? Patrick Grace: OEC is located in Norman, Oklahoma, which is just about 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. We primarily serve about three counties of the 77 here in Oklahoma, but Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma, which most people are familiar with, so we have kind of the suburban bedroom community that feeds into Oklahoma City. But we also have some very rural parts as well, typical of a lot of co-ops that are around; as the big cities kind of grew out into us, we have some density in some places and some that are still farms and ranches there. Patrick Grace: Right on I-35, which cuts the country in half, we're sitting about a stone's throw, our headquarters' about a stone's throw from that interstate. Christopher Mitchell: Oh. I'm not far from that interstate myself. I could just hop on and come down and meet y'all. Patrick Grace: Goes all the way up into Canada, I think. Christopher Mitchell: Pretty close, yeah. I was curious about the number of meters that you serve. 2:35 Patrick Grace: Yeah, sure. About 56,000 meters, and we have a little over 5,000 miles of lines, so that's approximately 10.2 meters per mile. For an electric cooperative, that's on the higher end of the dense cooperative. So about 92% residential, kind of the same with the bedroom community here, but with that comes about 60% of our plant is overhead, and about 40%'s underground. So later, when we get into the fiber bill, that was a factor. David Goodspeed: The complexity of our service territory also is that we are intertwined with a for-profit, Oklahoma Gas and Electric Utility. We were just talking about in a meeting this morning is that we have two houses next door to each other, one's OEC and one is OG&E, service territory also intertwines, which did present some unique and challenging and exciting opportunities for the OEC fiber side of the project. Christopher Mitchell: I'd love to hear about that, I'm a bit confused as to how that could happen. Patrick Grace: David, I'm glad you bring that up. It's a very unique aspect of us. Oklahoma has some weird laws and some constitutional stuff that, obviously the rural cooperatives were out, OEC were out in the rural areas, the farming communities, and the city had annexed out. Instead of kind of leaving us to our territory, as the city's annexed out, the city's had a franchise, they could serve anywhere in the city limits, so as they came into our territory, we fought for the right that we can keep on serving where we're always serving, where the investor and utilities were not interested in serving years ago. Patrick Grace: And so we had quite a bit of dual certified territory within state limits. So with that, the quirk of the constitution was that we basically had open competition for every meter, anything new. Anything old was grandfathered in with whoever had it. Back in the late '90s and 2000s, we were hot and heavy as a competitive electrical supplier, and so we were building out, trying to pick up housing additions as this area grew, like I said, in the suburbs, and so was our OG&E, our competitor. 4:44 Patrick Grace: We have housing additions where we're both in there, literally neighbors that have one utility and the other, there's a street light on one side of the cul-de-sac that's OEC and OG&E on the other side. Made for an interesting dynamics when we got all this going. As a side note, that's great, competition is typically good, and it was good for anybody new, it was good the developers. It was not good for all the rate payers and utility members and customers in Oklahoma, so legislation fixed that about 10 years ago, and we now have defined territories for anything new, but everything's pretty much already built out. Patrick Grace: As David said, unique challenges and opportunities as we build out and when we look at getting into broadband. Christopher Mitchell: I'll be actually sure to ask you about that, because I feel like that probably makes you better positioned than many utilities, given that you already had to be thinking in a competitive mindset to be ready for the fiber. Patrick Grace: It did, yeah, we had a little bit of competition in our blood, for sure. And that helped. What really helped is when we looked at the feasibility study, we knew we had a little bit bigger markets than we know about, just on our, from our electric members. And so the challenge with that is we don't know exactly what that could be, how big that could be, because we don't have any of that data. That was on our electric members. Patrick Grace: A little bit of faith, though. Luckily, when we started off with the feasibility study, it worked just with our electrical members, and so whatever we can pick up along the way with OG&E accounts is just even better. 6:31 Christopher Mitchell: So David, in other interviews we've often asked, and I feel like there's a normal progression in which the utility will often start with fiber for [escada 00:06:41] to monitor lines and things like that, and then over time, recognize the value in providing a service no one else will to the customers. So David, tell me a little bit about, how did you first get involved with fiber and then transition to considering residential fiber? David Goodspeed: It's a pretty fun story that I love telling. My admiration for Patrick goes extremely deep, because he's a 20-year veteran at Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, started out as an electrical engineer, and I love to say the joke, because he also verifies it, he knows everything twice. So we kind of came on on a crash-course, really, of how I got here, and what his vision was and what my vision was and how it's all worked out, is that I had been a vice-president at the University of Oklahoma, and so I had a different mindset of how things work when your constituents at a university are students and faculty and alumni and everything else. David Goodspeed: So it was a little bit of a competitive mindset, and so coming over to, whenever he interviewed me and we talked about this, and he said "hey, we're thinking about doing this Fiber-to-the-Home and fiber-to-the-business project, fiber-to-the-premise, whatever anybody's calling it nowadays- Christopher Mitchell: I'm so with you when it comes to the confusion around the terminology. There's these minor things that it would just be lovely if we could all know exactly what we're talking about with the acronyms and abbreviations. David Goodspeed: Yeah, we used to call it fiber-to-the-X, and people are saying "what's the X?", kind of thing. But we knew that, we were coming at it from different directions. I was coming from a competitive, "let's go and take on the world," and there was an aspect, also, an engineering type project, and I do not have the engineering background ... I measure once and then go find the tape measure, but I've already cut something, whereas Patrick measures twice and then cuts once. I usually use the analogy of, you know, pushing off the ledge and build the wings on the way down and see what happens. And that is very unorthodox in coming into a utility that is very strategic in how things are happening and how it should be done and not be done and things like that. 8:58 David Goodspeed: So it was an interesting way of approaching the project from two different sides of the fence, and how do we meet in the middle in saying, "okay, we're going to be doing Fiber-to-the-Home. While we're also doing Fiber-to-the-Home, here are all the other challenges that came on in how we were supposed to do things and not do things," and it's really what I think is the, you know, people always ask or say "how did y'all do this? What's the secret sauce? And I think if you start at the top there with us, you take Patrick out of the equation, you take me out of the equation, it changes the dynamic of the project completely. David Goodspeed: Then it falls into my side of the table and his side of the table and how it flows through an operates-type thing, and HR and legal and all this on the co-op side and how does it flow through on the fiber side with the network? And the marketing aspect of it, right, is that we're out there marketing a product that we want people to buy from us, whereas as a electric co-op, you buy a house, you call and the state, like Patrick alluded to, you call and you say "well, I don't want this, I want that," and they're saying "you can't do that, you don't have a choice." 10:13 David Goodspeed: It's been a very, I guess the best way to say using Jim Warvell's term, it's been a wild ride, and how we have got to the point where we are right now is that, Jonathan Chambers from Conexon has mentioned, is that we are one of the fastest, if not the fastest, Fiber-to-the-Home projects being done by a co-op right now. And I would put up against any of the other big, the big boys out there and for-profits and everything else under the sun about how fast we've gone. It's due to Patrick's leadership and also our board members who knew what we're doing and why we're doing it and how we're doing it, and to be able to have faith in product that is needed greatly, doesn't matter if you live in downtown Norman and you have access to high-speed fiber and gig speeds and everything else, that if you live 20 miles outside of town and you want to see the stars and you want to live on five acres and you don't want an HOA to tell you what you can and cannot do, that you should have the same amenities. David Goodspeed: That's what's happening across the country, is that, Patrick and I talk about this a lot, as I keep saying, we just hit everything at the right time. We're not too far behind the puck that's getting skated out there in front of us, or we're not overshooting it. We're keeping pace, and so it's been a fun journey so far. We really are just getting started, and really the best is yet to come. We've just learned a lot, I guess is the best way to say it. Christopher Mitchell: Well, Patrick, let me ask you: back in the early days before you probably even were in contact with David about working on this project, many electric co-op, as you know better than I do, are considering this, and there's more than a hundred that are moving forward at this point, but the vast majority haven't. I'm curious what made you confident that this was a good move for your utility. 12:04 Patrick Grace: When I took over as CEO, which was in the beginning of '16, I had no intention of doing anything like this, and we ... in fact, I was internally, or I guess in the state, I was pretty outspoken against it, saying that co-ops should not be getting into this. Like David said, I was an engineer and I knew everything, so I didn't hesitate to tell everybody what my thoughts were. Life has a funny way of humbling you. There's two other co-ops in Oklahoma that got into fiber, the lake region and Northeast Electric. Patrick Grace: In early '17, our statewide magazine, we have a magazine that goes out to all electric co-op members in the state, did an article on those two broadband projects. And because that magazine went to all OEC members, they first got the idea that electric cooperatives are doing this and they blew us up with an outpouring. Members call and hitting out Facebook page, texting me, people I didn't even know had my phone number. It was really, really interesting. The fundamental assumption that I had, that was incorrect, was that we're in a college town, we have good density, there's housing additions going up all over here, and that just means that we have good Internet options. Patrick Grace: Our members quickly educated me otherwise, so you have areas that are a mile or two east of the University of Oklahoma, which is massive, and the telecommunications provider were not bringing the high-speed Internet out to them. That floored me, and from that point I felt like, okay, we need to look into this. I started getting comments, but they were casual comments, occasionally someone would write a letter to me, but that's the first time I felt like there was a groundswell, a grassroots kind of feeling. At the end of the day, co-ops really work for our members, and so something I had to pay attention to. 14:08 Patrick Grace: So, launched the feasibility study, and the feasibility study came back and said that yeah, this is a great opportunity for a project. That was about mid-2017, and then we really took about six months of due diligence to try to make sure that we really were wanting to do this. We took Conexon to, David mentioned Jonathan Chambers and Randy Klindt, who really bring the expertise to our project as outside design and construction management consultants. Patrick Grace: And took their feasibility study and all the assumptions that went into it and dove into it and, once again, my engineering background came out where I challenged every assumption and ... I drove them nuts, I'm sure, but really wanted to know what we were getting into. At the end of the day, all the assumptions were, I thought, very, very reasonable, and we've learned now, as we got into it, that they were actually a little conservative. So that was the road. Very unwillingly did we get into it, but at the end of the day, the members and the project really, at least on paper and from what we were hearing, was something we needed to do. Christopher Mitchell: I've looked at hundreds of projects from municipal utilities, cooperatives, other non-profit arrangements, and for-profits, and rarely do I find a project that is struggling where they say "we challenged every assumption." So it's really a good thing. Patrick Grace: Right, sure. Christopher Mitchell: Let me jump back to you, David. I'm curious, you're one of the fastest-growing, you said. How are you managing that? Is it just super-easy to build on your polls, maybe to avoid any make-ready, or is there a secret to your expansion? David Goodspeed: It's not a secret; what the success goes back to is really, like what Patrick just said, is that, you know, mid-'17, the members started going, and probably non-members, I mean, if anybody says "hey, somebody can do this," it doesn't matter if you're a member of a co-op or not, and really kind of casting the vision and saying, you know, sitting down every VP at his table at that time and saying "all right, operations, give me your input, give me your thoughts." And metering and HR and legal and especially member services and all that stuff, instead of just saying "well, members want this, this is what we're going to do, we're going to shove it down everybody's throats and you're going to like it, take it or leave it." 16:42 David Goodspeed: I was not here, I didn't come on until September of '17, so I was not here for a lot of those moments and those trips or those ... I think they visited a co-op, they went out as a team and looked at this, but I think it was really setting the vision and saying "this is what our members want," knowing that the culture that OEC, that's been here for 85 years, is always about the member first. No matter what, everything that I've learned in my little over two-and-a-half years here, is that ... I always start the stories like, the member that calls our phone number and asks for help. We do whatever we can do, and so I think it's really, like I said, just casting that vision and saying, "we know we need to do this, we ought to do it, we probably know we're going to do it." David Goodspeed: Our VP of operations, Marty Hayes, he asked him in June of '17, "I mean we're 50-50 if you think we're going to do it, because we're going to start doing things to prepare for this." So I think really, all the work that had happened prior to me getting here, of saying we're going to do it. Now, there's a lot of things that have happened since then that made the co-op probably a little uncomfortable, made Patrick a little uncomfortable, made me a little uncomfortable. Google had danced around in Oklahoma City saying they're going to do fiber and all this stuff, so it really started probably in, like, '15, '14-'15, somewhere around there. People were getting excited about Fiber-to-the-Home. It didn't matter if it was an AT&T or a Cox or a Google or somebody else, people understood what the technology could do for them, because with the Internet of things, it was pushing these conversations to the front, saying "I want to do all this stuff, I've got terrible Internet." 18:23 David Goodspeed: So really, what happened was that morphing of this project that came into this idea that OEC's going to do Fiber-to-the-Home. Well, OEC does everything exceptionally well, and I'm not saying that because I work here, they are. I've been a member for over 20 years, and I think I had a problem once in 20 years with a gopher chewing on my electrical line or something like that. So when we started doing it, the demand took off. The horse had broken the fence, and it was gone. And there are some funny stories where Patrick's like, you know, he puts his hands up by his ears and goes "this is my comfort level on marketing," and then he just stretches them out maybe a foot and he goes "and this is where I'm at right now, and I'm uncomfortable, and I'm leaving." David Goodspeed: Knowing that that's where we were going and just kind of riding this wave of people saying "we love you, we want you, can you be here tomorrow?" We're saying "we just attached our first pole in April of 2018." The demand has really, what it did was is it changed the co-op in general. The employee that would wear an OEC shirt to work and then they would go eat dinner someplace, nobody talked to them. Well, then what happened was is that, all of a sudden they go to a restaurant, and they're being approached saying "I understand you guys are doing this fiber." And so they were a part of it, it wasn't just an OEC fiber and the fiber team ... it touched everybody in Enterprise Architecture, it touched the linemen, it touched metering, it touched everybody that just went out in the public that, see, they said "we're behind you. What do we got to do? We'll do some marketing for you." David Goodspeed: I've had members who've been doing marketing for me, and I just keep giving them the yard signs and the door hangers and the graphics to put on their HOH Facebook page. It really took a great sense of pride in what, I started from the very beginning saying we're doing something that we will never be able to do again in our lives, and some people will never be able to do period, is what happened 85 years ago when my mother and uncle and my grandparents were living in southwestern Oklahoma and my mom said "you know what, I didn't get electricity till I was, like, second or third grade." 20:27 David Goodspeed: And so to really sit back and say wow, we have an opportunity in front of us that falls into the co-op spirit and falls into that co-op mentality to say "we are doing something nobody else will ever do again." I can retire at age 80 and say "nobody will take away what I did at that time of my life," and so to take that pride and then use the tagline that we did, saying "go where no one else will go." Imagine somebody trying to market that 85 years ago to a farmer, they're just saying "we need to turn on the lights when it gets dark." David Goodspeed: That was our tagline early on, was "going where no one else will go." And we went where no one else was going when the for-profits were pulling out. We came in and really showed what happened 85 years ago and how we've truly changed people's lives. Christopher Mitchell: I love that enthusiasm, and I fully agree in terms of that you're doing something that not everyone has an opportunity to do. I mean, this is daunting to build this infrastructure, but it's certainly, it's not like these things come along every generation. It's only once every few. With all the excitement that you can still generate, it doesn't always mean that you can find the financing, and so Patrick, I'm curious how you're able to finance this. Were you involved with any of the auctions from the Federal Communications Commission? Have you been self-financing? What's the approach? Patrick Grace: The access to low-cost financing is a huge piece of the puzzle. When we did our feasibility study, we just looked at it without any federal grants because I think it's real important, at that time, we didn't know what was available, what would get anything, and the feasibility study worked without them. And so we have been 98% self-financed, meaning we've taken on debt from a great partner we have, CFC, who's a lender to electric cooperatives, almost exclusively electric cooperatives. It's owned by us as well. So that has been huge. Now, as we have gotten along the ... we've become their biggest debt portfolio because we've gone so fast and we're kind of out in front of a lot of co-ops doing this. We're all kind of learning as we go along. 22:54 Patrick Grace: Also, to echo a few things that David said, you asked about speed and how we're able to go so fast. Pardon the football analogy, but we are here in Norman, Oklahoma- Christopher Mitchell: That's acceptable. Patrick Grace: Sooner fans, yeah, big Sooner fans. Lincoln Riley averages 40 or 50 points a game, that doesn't happen from one reason only. That happens with a lot of things working together, with everyone doing their job and everything coming together and the right people in the right spot, the right quarterback, skilled players all that stuff. And I think that's really what we have. David talked about, it started with the electric side, and the whole management team just really being on board. They were part of the whole feasibility and the due diligence process, and they heard from the members, and then the rest of the co-op, they really understood it. So you have everybody, the whole team really all working together well, and that's huge. Patrick Grace: The other big, huge part, David probably won't say this, but David himself, his skill set and his personality, he came from outside the co-op, and that was very intentional because the fiber project, it's a rollercoaster, and it changes daily. The upper utility folks, I always joke that we work for an 80-year monopoly cash cow. To take the same approach and same people and same skill set and apply that to a start-up, basically a start-up Internet company, that's hard. When we looked at, okay, who's going to run this or who's going to be the leader of this, that's where David came from the university and he was with Apple and had retail experience at Target before then, and just, someone who could take us and move fast and really be responsive and head on a swivel. 24:49 Patrick Grace: It's hard for us, hard for me, even now, and I don't even, in the middle of it. David's the one driving the ship on that. But that's huge too, and he developed a tremendous team, and then along with that, he got out and hit the marketing really hard, mainly through social media. So we developed this big demand, I talked a little bit about, the members were already kind of bubbling up. I was a little afraid of trying to get out there too far ahead with marketing, because I was afraid that we'd get run over by our members. Patrick Grace: David, he came in and just embraced it and got out there and marketed, and we have, you know, the line out our door, people that are excited about it. We have to manage that expectation, but that also fueled the desire to go fast as people wanted. So we didn't want to do it quietly, we didn't want to go out and struggle to have people sign up for our services. He hit that well, so you cue all that up, mix it in a pot, and then you have a partner like Conexon, which we talked about that was able to scale up with us. The contractor we're using is local here in Norman, and we sat down with them and they said "we want to do all your projects," and we said "we want you to do all our projects, how fast can you go?" And they said "let's go find out." Patrick Grace: To your point, we had financing that was available to us that could scale up and go as fast as we need to, and then the original question about make-ready, we also had a very strong system that, we've had about 15 FEMA events since 1999, so either tornadoes or ice storms, that have really wiped out our system, so we've had to rebuild it. Every time we rebuild it, we build it a little bit stronger, because end up having another big tornado or ice storm. Fiber construction's actually able to get out in front of the make-ready quite a bit because of the system. 26:49 Patrick Grace: Now, there's also, if you ask anybody that works here, back in my time in engineering, we might've over-engineered the system a little bit. Would not plead innocent to that charge. You know, back when we were competing with OG&E, OG&E, 850,000 customers, serving the whole state and then they go off into Arkansas a little bit, and we were, at the time, about 40,000. We can't really compete with them from a cost perspective, just because of the economy of the scale, so we had to compete on service. When we went out there, we tried to be faster, be more responsive, but also just be better when it comes to reliability as well. Patrick Grace: So that was kind of how we set ourselves up back then, and it's really interesting now that we're getting into broadband, once again, service is what sets us apart because we treat them like they're members. We're local and they can call and yell at me and yell at David. They do that regularly if we mess something up, and as fast as we're going, things get cut and we miss things. We're trying to manage the chaos, but it is chaos. Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious about the other reaction, the people who are thrilled. Well, I guess I'm curious about all reactions. So let me ask you, David, how many people are taking the gigabits service, rather than the 100-megabit that you have as sort of the standard tier? Just share any other reactions that you have from people in terms of, especially local businesses or residents. 28:25 David Goodspeed: The approach that we, based off of Conexon's model, which is really "keep is simple." What we've done is we have two packages for the Internet side, which is 100 megs, symmetrical speeds of no data caps for $55 a month, or a full gig, symmetrical speeds, no data caps for $85 a month. That has really just set the industry and the competition on its ear, right? The fact that the way we have approached it and the simplicity of it, and no contracts and no hidden fees and no introductories and no all that, I can't imagine, at this pace that we're doing it, dealing with 12-month contracts and people that are upset about and about that and everything else. David Goodspeed: When we launched our full retail service of the Internet, when we actually went to the first house and said, we got past the friendlies and all that other type of stuff, our first install, I can tell you, took us three days, and now we're averaging about 40 a day. So you can kind of understand how fast we've gone since we started offering services on February 10th of 2019. What that's done is, is that's equated to about 7,100 active subscribers that we have on our network currently, and about 2,000 of those, a little bit shy of 2,000, are taking the gig speed. Christopher Mitchell: Wow. That's remarkable. I've heard some similar stories, I really appreciate you sharing the actual numbers with us. I just want to put a punctuation mark on that, because that's remarkable. 30:03 David Goodspeed: Yeah, and it's hard to understand. Like Patrick said, coming from the world of Apple and then coming from the university, I've got a pretty good finger on the pulse about the Internet of things and how people are consuming the Internet and what they're wanting to do and everything else. I think, somebody asked this the other day, we were at a Conexon workshop and they said, "what did you do to get your gig rate, take rate so high?" I said, well, first off, we didn't focus on it. What we focused on was the service and the price and the ease and simplicity and the, everything about it. David Goodspeed: You know, I always say this to Patrick and he has to remind me, because sometimes, like he said, it's an emotional rollercoaster, is that it's is just noise. We just focus on ourselves, we focus on what we do, and good things will come and bad things will come and we'll learn from it. We pretty much don't repeat history, and if we do, it's okay. Really, what's happening is is that, in the rural areas, and we deliberately went to where people were, like Patrick said, two miles east of the University of Oklahoma, they had, like, 10 tubes or eight tubes or something like that, so we deliberately went that way because we knew the demand would be high on the overall take rate type scenarios and things like that. David Goodspeed: But what I think happened was is that it's like the ... the only analogy I can think of real quick is that we can all remember our first car, and it was probably our brother's or sister's and it was a hand-me-down and you got coat hangers with the door locks and you had everything else. But when you got your first big-boy or big-girl job and you went and bought that car, you just said "holy cow, I can go really fast, I can drive from Norman to Minneapolis without having to worry about putting oil or antifreeze in it, I'm good to go. I'll never have to look back again." David Goodspeed: I think that's what's happening, is that people have been so deprived of having an experience in the home, whether it's doing homework with the kids or watching Netflix, which is something we all take for granted, but some people have never had that experience. And I think they just said, you know what, at the value of what this is, because I was paying a satellite company ... I've heard this particularly, people right now are saying "I hit my daily caps and I'm paying a satellite company twice as much as what you're charging for the gig. And you're telling me that I can have kind of experience in the home and never have to worry about my Internet speeds or anything like that ever again? I'm taking it." 32:36 David Goodspeed: And so then what that did is that exploded into them taking it, and then started doing things in the home that were different. And then what Patrick talked about just a second ago, which I totally got caught off-guard with the impact social media had, is that when we opened up zones, we've got friends tagging friends and saying "you're next, you're next," but what people do is they take pictures of the equipment outside of their house and they're saying "I'm getting it." And then they take pictures of their speeds, and when we do an install, we do a speed test, and we record that for the member and we show it to them, and then they're doing speed tests on their own and they're posting it on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, showing 980 megs up and 987 megs down or something like that. David Goodspeed: People are saying "holy cow, this is real, and it's only $85." Yep, yep, it is, it is, and you just kind of sit back and just watch it go. What it's really done, it's just changed the way people are living, we've started to see that more people are working from home, so that demand's there. Employers paying for the gig, that's great, or if they just want it, they can now afford it. And like I said, you could sit here and ask me the same question again and I can give you a completely different answer, because I really don't truly have an answer of what we did to say "we're going to push the gig." David Goodspeed: We're not pushing either package, I'm pushing the experience, I'm pushing the service, I'm pushing the fact, like Patrick said, is that I'm accessible, I've shown up in members' home who are mad, and as the president, you're not going to get the president of a, you know, of a big-boy out there to show up at somebody's home and say "you're right, we put those ruts in your yard" or "you're right, you're not getting the speeds, we will get it fixed. We can do this." 34:18 David Goodspeed: It's people just saying "I want the best, I got rid of my brother's hand-me-down and I've got a Ford that can go to Minneapolis. I'm good to go, and I'll never have think back about it." They'll never have to worry about it ever again. And the last thing I'll tell about that is, one day I'm standing there with one of my network technicians, and he said, I can tell he had the little puzzled look on his face, and he's looking at the phone. We had just started offering services, and I said "what's wrong?" And he said, "well, we've got a member who, his speeds in his home are only, like, 300 megs up and down around that area." I said, "okay, he's on the gig plan, obviously, right?" And he was like, "yeah." David Goodspeed: And I said, they don't know any different, because the passion that the team has, they want to make sure that they've got that 900-plus the best way they possibly can. So people can drop, they can do speed tests and be at 900, they can drop to 500. You and I, Patrick, nobody will notice the difference; the fact is that they got the best of the best, we're delivering the best of the best, because we are the best of the best. I will say it. David Goodspeed: They want that and they know how important it is, and it's been just an absolute phenomenal experience to see how this all is evolving, and really pushing us to what does this look like when we get past launching TV and phone service here pretty soon. What is the next thing look like, what do we want to do? What else do we want to give them? That's why our name is OEC Fiber, it's not OEC Internet or Broadband, it's Fiber. Fiber it the conduit and the light that gives people the ability to do what it is they want to do, and taking it back to 2017, when the members come back, and now our subscribers, saying "we want you to do this" and you've got the pipe to do it, let's do it. David Goodspeed: So it's just, it's been very mind-boggling, is the best way to say it. 36:06 Christopher Mitchell: Well, David, I wish you had some enthusiasm for this job. David Goodspeed: Yeah, I don't know -- Patrick Grace: Yeah, you have no idea. David Goodspeed: Yeah, sometimes Patrick has to let me kind of turn into my shoe size and let me pout and let me get frustrated, but the best thing I love to tell is that, in the beginning, I would always say "you need to sit down." He would always say "I am sitting down." I was like, "you need to hear this." Now we've got this little thing that goes back and forth between us, we always say "you can't make this stuff up." David Goodspeed: It is, it's the enthusiasm, it is truly dealing with the adversity and dealing the, "it's okay, Patrick, this is what's really bad right now," or "this is what's really good," and just, he gave me a wonderful piece of advice: we all have those moments in our lives, and I think everybody listening to this can reflect on those, but he just said "keep showing up. Tomorrow's a new day." And I think it's because of the experience of the co-op of saying "we've dealt with ice storms." David Goodspeed: I've got a lineman who works for me, a former lineman who works for me who's our outside plant construction manager, and he told me one day, he said, had nothing to do with our fiber, but I think the listeners will really, truly appreciate and understand the complexity of this project. He said, we were out in an ice storm and they had built about five miles of line, and they were sitting in the truck and he was cold and tired, and he was sitting there with the guy that rode with him, and they got out of the truck and all of a sudden they heard this cracking, and the poles just started breaking again. David Goodspeed: And he said, you know, "we just settled those poles. It all broke and we had to go back and do it again." And I said "well, what'd you do?" He said, "I questioned why I'm doing this as a job." You can imagine the feeling he had. But he said "you know what, we just did it." Patrick has seen those moment where the co-op just said "keep showing up." You just go reset the poles, and so by just saying "just keep showing up, don't lose focus, it'll all be okay, it'll all work itself out," and we're under the pressure right now, we are pressure-cooking right now while we're doing this podcast with you and we're getting 40-plus people hooked up today, and there's a pressure-cooker going on with offering TV services and phone. 38:23 David Goodspeed: But the fact that we can still not lose focus on what we're doing and deal with the adversity and deal with emotions that come with it and deal with the excitement, and then you get excited and then it falls apart, and then you pick it back up and do it again. It's been one of the biggest joys of my life, and I will never forget it. That's for sure. Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'll have to let you get back to those 40 customers for today. I do have to note that I had a mentor who was just amazing, and one day I saw her after she had coffee and I almost just, my brain almost melted at the speed she was operating at. I get the idea that you may have to deal with that, Patrick. Patrick Grace: Yes, except it's 5-Hour Energy for David. This whole project is fueled by 5-Hour Energy. Christopher Mitchell: Sure. David Goodspeed: This is not a 5-Hour Energy commercial, but he came in and I didn't have one, and so I grabbed a couple Sudafed, I said "this is all I got." He just looked at me and just, he just smiled and put his hand on his head and said "give it to me." I think that's the key, for people who want to do it or whatever, is that, it's finding the people who share the same vision and mission with you that can pick you up when you fall, or you're there to pick them up when they fall. This is not easy, and if it was, then everybody would be doing it, and as Randy Klindt called it one time, he said "it would be called drinking a beer." David Goodspeed: There's only one Steve Jobs, he said "I want to put music on a device," and somebody had to go firm, so hopefully when we come out of this at the end, we don't know when the end is, but when we get to that point, we can look back and just say, okay, see you tomorrow, we'll do it again. Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both, Patrick and David, I very much appreciate the opportunity to learn more about your project. Patrick Grace: Yeah, thanks for talking to us. David Goodspeed: You got it, thank you. 40:12 Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Patrick Grace and David Goodspeed from the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative about the entity and OEC Fiber. 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 anywhere you get your podcasts. Lisa Gonzalez: You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, "Warm Duck Shuffle," licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 398 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening. Tags: transcript

Citizens Continue to Lead the Charge in Concord, Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 399

muninetworks.org - March 17, 2020

When Paul Revere rode through Concord, Massachusetts, to warn the Colonists about the Red Coats, horseback was the fastest way to move information. More than 240 years later, the community that was so instrumental to founding of the United States as we know it now sends information via their own fast, affordable, reliable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) municipal network. This week, Concord's former CIO Mark Howell joins Christopher to talk about the community and their investment.

Mark discusses the community's history and the story of the network, which includes their reasons for investing in the infrastructure. He talks about the local citizens' enthusiasm for the project and what it was like to go from operating an electric utility to adding Internet access for the public. Mark also discusses the funding mechanism that Concord used to pay for the project and shares a few of the many benefits that the network has brought to Concord and its people.

Christopher and Mark review the reasoning behind the different service offerings available to subscribers and the rationale behind choosing these tiers. They also talk about some of the challenges Concord has faced and Mark gets into the possibilities of regional efforts in order to maximize the possibility of reaching more households.

Read more about the network in the 2017 report published by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Citizens Take Charge: Concord, Massachusetts, Builds a Fiber Network. This show is 28 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Read the transcript for this episode. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.  Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsconcordmassachusettsFTTHsmart-gridmunicipal light plantmunifundingschoolutility

Join Our Team! Searching for a Broadband Writer and Editor

muninetworks.org - March 17, 2020

Ready to see your name in lights? (Okay, okay, just 12 point font.)

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is seeking a Broadband Writer and Editor to join the Institute’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The Community Broadband Networks team works to ensure all Americans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access by researching, reporting, and advising on issues such as community-owned broadband, network neutrality, and universal access. The new Broadband Writer and Editor will manage our site, MuniNetworks.org, and work closely with rest of our small but dedicated team.

View the listing on ILSR.org or below. Responsibilities:

  • Managing MuniNetworks.org (this site!), a clearinghouse of the latest news, comprehensive reports, and statistics about community broadband networks. This includes researching, interviewing people over the phone, and authoring articles as well as managing posts, podcasts, and research material created by the team (65%)
  • Managing our archive of materials about municipal networks, cooperative networks, and other approaches in the broadband area (10%) Monitoring an overwhelming number of Google alerts and other streams of information to keep track of local developments around community networks (15%)
  • Working with the team to develop and review research projects and creative efforts to share our work. (10%)
A Successful Candidate Is:
  • An exceptionally good writer with the ability to convey complex ideas in a clear and compelling way. Able to write quickly when needed.
  • Attentive to accuracy, detail, and nuance.
  • A strong analytical thinker who can identify the pivotal questions and gaps in a piece.
  • Possesses a genuine enjoyment of collaboration with a willingness to give and receive honest feedback. Skilled at helping team members improve the articles they contribute.
  • Passionate about ILSR’s mission of countering corporate monopolies and building community power.
  • Enthusiastic about puns, alliteration, or some other means of playing with words.
  • Interested in helping to produce and potentially edit podcasts.
Preferred Qualifications:
  • More than 3 years of experience in journalism or writing and editing — ideally on broadband policy, tech, or related fields.
  • Strong knowledge of public policy processes and/or a strong telecom background.
  • A bachelor’s degree.
Location and Compensation:
  • Position is full-time and based in Minneapolis.
  • 100 percent employer-paid health plan, generous vacation and holiday leave, and retirement contribution matching.
  • Salary is commensurate with experience, expected at $43,000-$50,000.
How to Apply: Please send the following to Hiring@ILSR.org with the subject line “Broadband Editor”:
  • Your résumé.
  • A cover letter addressed to Christopher Mitchell, no longer than 400 words — please specify where you found the position .
  • Two writing samples reflecting your original work, no longer than 1,000 words each (excerpts of longer pieces are welcome).
Applications will be accepted at least through March 25 and on a rolling basis after that date until the position is filled. About Us: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a 45-year-old research and advocacy organization that challenges extreme corporate concentration and builds local power through initiatives that focus on local businesses, energy, broadband, and the waste stream. We use in-depth research, reporting, and data analysis to produce influential reports and articles. Our analysis is frequently featured in national news media and sought out by policymakers. We work closely with a broad range of allies to move these ideas and policies. The Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute runs MuniNetworks.org — an information hub on cooperative and municipal Internet infrastructure. We create fact sheets, reports, videos, podcasts, and the occasional comic to educate the media and policymakers on broadband policy. We also advise communities on how to improve Internet access for businesses and residents. Our staff are passionate, hard-working, and friendly. The office environment is relaxed and casual. ILSR takes professional growth seriously. Applications are welcome from a broad range of applicants. ILSR is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status, or disability. ILSR is committed to providing employees with a welcoming work environment free of discrimination and harassment. All employment decisions are made without regard to age, race, color, religion or belief, gender identification, family or parental status. Tags: jobsinstitute for local self-reliance

ISPs Pledge Higher Speeds, No Data Caps, and Some Free Connections During Pandemic

muninetworks.org - March 16, 2020

In an effort to keep families connected as schools and workplaces close in response to the novel coronavirus, many Internet service providers (ISPs) are taking steps to make their services more accessible and functional for those of us who are staying home for the foreseeable future.

Some policies are being officially encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through Chairman Ajit Pai’s new Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By signing onto the pledge, providers agree to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public and to not disconnect or charge late fees to those struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.

To ensure people have sufficient connectivity during the public health crisis, some ISPs are going beyond the pledge’s requirements by raising speeds, suspending data caps, and offering free Internet access to certain households.

While these efforts will not close all of the digital divides being exacerbated the pandemic, they are an important step toward mitigating the immediate impact on families and businesses.

Keep Americans Connected Pledge

FCC Chairman Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge last Friday, March 13. The pledge calls on ISPs to make Wi-Fi hotspots publicly accessible and to keep households and small businesses that are facing financial difficulties because of the pandemic connected over the next couple months. “As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected,” said Pai in a press release [pdf] issued by the FCC. He also noted the importance of broadband access to enable remote work, online education, and telehealth appointments during periods of “social distancing.” The press release, available below, shared the text of the pledge: Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to: (1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; (2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and (3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. Within 24 hours, more than 70 companies signed onto the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, including national providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, as well as regional and local providers, such as GWI in Maine and UTOPIA Fiber in Utah. What’s Your Provider Doing? In addition to signing the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, many ISPs are unveiling other efforts to improve connectivity for families and businesses during the pandemic. For example, AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast have suspended data caps on home Internet access. Charter Spectrum plans to offer free broadband access for 60 days to some households with students in grade school or college. Cox Communications will raise speeds for certain subscription tiers. Local providers are also taking charge. OpenCape, a regional network that connects schools, hospitals, and other community institutions in Massachusetts, recently announced that it would upgrade subscribers’ bandwidth for free. CEO Steven Johnston said: Offering schools, towns, hospitals and businesses the ability to utilize additional tools to host and share information remotely is an opportunity to help support organizations . . . We hope this assists our customers to decrease the need for human contact and direct interaction and to promote the social distancing that can help reduce the spread of disease. For information and updates on specific companies' programs, visit Consumer Reports’ summary or the crowdsourced spreadsheet created by Digital Charlotte, or call your ISP. UPDATE: Stop the Cap is also tracking low-cost Internet acccess offers in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. FCC Keep Americans Connected Pledge AnnouncementTags: quarantineat&tcomcastchartercoxcenturylinkgwiopencapeutopiafcc

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 16

muninetworks.org - March 16, 2020


Somerville voters agree to seek grants to create municipal broadband network by Keith Edwards, Central Maine   Massachusetts  OpenCape Offers Clients 100% Free Bandwidth Upgrades To Combat COVID-19, OpenCape   New Hampshire  Westmoreland approves broadband project at town meeting by Olivia Belanger, Sentinel Source   New York Two states divert to telework. Are others ready? By Andrew Westrope, GovTech   Ohio  How Cleveland is bridging both digital and racial divides by Lara Fishbane and Adie Tomer, Brookings     Wisconsin  Wisconsin Offers Tax Breaks for Rural Broadband Investments by Carl Weinschenk, telecompetitor    General    The National Broadband Plan at 10: A decade of lessons on increasing home broadband adoption, Benton Institute   What America can do to strengthen its communications infrastructure by Lindsay Stern, Public Knowledge    USDA Extends ReConnect Application Deadline to March 31, USDA   Response to New Coronavirus   Coronavirus exposes Internet inequality among U.S. students as schools close their doors by Tony Romm, Washington Post    As COVID-19 pushes classes online, some students are caught in the broadband gap by Makena Kelly, The Verge All of these examples highlight a problem the Federal Communications Commission and lawmakers have struggled to solve for years — the “homework gap.” It’s a term that refers to the barriers students face at school when they don’t have access to a high-speed internet connection at home. In times of emergency, those online barriers become more apparent, especially when schools haven’t planned for them in advance before moving classes online.   Broadband providers brace for coronavirus stress test by Margaret Harding McGill, Axios   Doctors and patients turn to telemedicine in the coronavirus outbreak by Reed Abelson, New York Times   Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon Should Suspend Data Caps Because of Coronavirus by Karl Bode, VICE Experts have repeatedly warned that broadband usage caps and overage fees are little more than a glorified price hike, employed by regional telecom monopolies to drive up costs. In the wake of an unprecedented quarantine and containment effort, experts say that eliminating these costly restrictions is the very least the industry and federal leaders can do. U.S. providers offer free Wi-Fi for 60 days, ABC news   Tags: media roundup

Christopher Mitchell Interviewed by Wisconsin Public Radio

muninetworks.org - March 13, 2020
Wisconsin Public Radio - Demand for Affordable, Reliable Broadband Remains High Across the State and Nation

On February 17, Christopher Mitchell spoke on WPR's "Central Time" about the need for broadband access in unserved areas and how communities have taken a different approach to increase reliable and affordable Internet access. 

The discussion also touches on funding programs, which is an important factor for local providers to expand broadband infrastructure in rural areas. 

Here is an excerpt from Christopher's interview with WPR:  

The issue with the city is a little bit deceiving because you may have real competition between three to four providers in some parts of a city, and in other parts, you might just have a cable monopoly where no one else is investing. I think we are going to see major issues in cities in the coming decade still. It's not something that will be resolved by 2030, I don't think. We may actually solve rural broadband problem faster than we bring real choice to everyone in the city.

Listen to the interview on WPR. Tags: press centerwisconsinaudiofunding

How Will Broadband Networks Handle Quarantine Congestion? Mostly OK

muninetworks.org - March 12, 2020

As schools and businesses ask people to stay home to reduce the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus, I wanted to share some thoughts about how I expect broadband Internet access networks will handle the change and increase in broadband traffic in residential areas.

Our first reaction is that, as with so many areas with network effects, the rich will get richer. This is to say that historic inequities will be exacerbated — people that have been able to afford the high-quality networks will probably see very little disruption and those who have older networks may be effectively disconnected. Better Network Scenarios Those on fiber optic networks probably won't notice major changes in demand. This is the easy one — it is why we have long believed that fiber optics should be the goal for the vast majority of Americans. Most modern cable networks should be also able to handle the demand — especially on the download end. This is good because 2 out of 3 Americans with broadband gets it from a cable network. Upgrades in recent years from the aggressive cable companies (Comcast Xfinity, Cox, and some of the many smaller cable networks — Charter Spectrum less so) should allow more than sufficient download capacity even if home video streaming increases significantly. But in smaller towns, where the local cable companies haven't been able to afford those upgrades and the bigger cable providers have just ignored them, I would expect to see intermittent and in some cases, persistent congestion problems from bottlenecks. In the upstream direction, the cable networks will have some challenges. I wouldn't expect most Comcast or Cox markets to have too many problems, though neighborhoods with lots of professionals using video conferencing tools could congest. I would expect Charter Spectrum, Mediacom, and many of the others to have frequent congestion for upstream connections, lowering throughput extremely at times. Worse Network Scenarios Fixed Wireless networks will be all over the board. Urban and advanced fixed wireless networks like Monkeybrains in San Francisco, Open Broadband in North Carolina, and NetBlazr in Boston will probably scale just fine. But in rural areas, many fixed wireless networks were constructed without the headroom for the expected increase in demand. Some will be able to accommodate it, but many will not. Some, like Vistabeam in the west will probably have entire areas with recent upgrades that work fine but areas with older technology may really struggle. This is a key test for fixed wireless - if many of these networks cannot meet demand, we will see more of an effort to limit federal broadband subsidies to business models that don't break when most needed. In a few months, I hope Matt Larsen is telling everyone I was a fool to have doubts. *Matt tells me that he expects challenges to be mostly in the middle mile and has just completed upgrades and that middle mile upgrades take longer than people like me appreciate. DSL will be an unmitigated disaster in many places, especially where Frontier and Windstream are the monopoly. These networks may become unusable — though many may think of them as unusable now, congestion could so overwhelm the systems that they become entirely unusable. I have recently used the "bar noise" problem to describe what happens with networks as they congest — each person in a crowded bar talks louder and then louder as aggregate noise increases. But with DSL networks in the the coming weeks, this may be more like everyone turning amplifers to 11 rather than shouting. All the more reason to be furious with the Federal Communications Commission for dumping billions into these obsolete upgrades over the past 6 years. Those still on DSL are mostly there because they have no better option or cannot afford the higher prices for cable connectivity. Thus, we will see yet another area of our economy where those who have historically been disadvantaged be overwhelmingly disadvantaged from a twist of fate they had no way of preventing. Whether on failed DSL or struggling fixed wireless networks, I think there will be insufficient capacity to productively work from home at best and in many cases, and inability to even stream content. Satellite? Again, something many thought could not get worse will, especially with daily data caps, etc. Unlike with wired networks, the caps are probably actually necessary because the system is not designed to handle a large concurrent demand from users. It will not scale at all. Bandwidth Caps Speaking of bandwidth caps, we have long argued (with no real opposition) that they are illogical as a solution and only exist because monopoly providers have found a way to extract more wealth from captive households. This will be further demonstrated as we probably see the caps relaxed during these quarantine period(s). After all, if caps can be waived during the single greatest period of congestion, what justification could they possibly have? See Stop the Cap and MotherboardUpdates After publishing this, a comment on Twitter made me realize I focused too little on a related problem - the connections for businesses. Many businesses also rely on asymmetrical networks (often cable) in which they have much slower upload capacity than download. While everyone is in the office on a fast Wi-Fi or gigbit LAN, the slow uplink is not as much a problem as most traffic is within the office. But with some or most people outside the office, the office will be severely constricted in how much data it can send out to remote employees. This may well overwhelm cable networks and almost certainly DSL networks in those areas. Another tweet noted that governments (and probably corporations) have not scaled VPN solutions to be ready for a massive increase in people working remotely. I have learned that state government is probably not alone in still having many people that use desktop computers and are not permitted to use other devices for work for security concerns. And rightfullly so! I welcome people commenting to point out where they think I'm wrong, ask questions, or offer additional thoughts. Tags: quarantinecabledslsatellitefixed wirelessWirelessfiberuploadcomcastchartercoxmediacomfrontierdocsis3telecommuting

USDA Extends ReConnect Application Deadline to End of March

muninetworks.org - March 12, 2020

Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is extending the ReConnect broadband program round two deadline to March 31, 2020. The agency will distribute $550 million this year in grants and loans to expand connectivity in rural America. Previously, applications were due by March 16 to be considered for the funding. In a USDA press release, Deputy Under Secretary Bette Brand said: By extending the ReConnect Program application deadline, we are helping even more qualified organizations access the essential funding to make high-speed broadband connectivity a reality for rural communities across America. Round and Round Congress approved the initial $600 million for the first phase of the USDA's ReConnect program back in 2018. In 2019, the agency accepted round one applications for projects in underserved rural areas that haven't received goverment broadband funding before. Eligible entities included small Internet Service Providers (ISPs), rural electric and telephone cooperatives, local governments and tribal networks. So far, USDA has announced 70 grant and loan recipients across 31 states in ReConnect round one. We’ve written about a number of these awardees including, recently, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, the Town of Arrowsic in Maine, and Alaska-based Cordova Telecom Cooperative. Round two of the ReConnect program will distribute an additional $550 million, with awards to be announced later in 2020. ReConnect’s Disconnect Despite the clear boost that ReConnect funding will give to rural connectivity, USDA has faced some criticism over the program. Commenters note that the application process can be complicated for smaller providers to complete without paying for outside consultants and also that eligible areas are limited by inaccurate data and unnecessary restrictions. In particular, the ReConnect program's exclusion of areas receiving federal satellite subsidies is leaving some rural communities behind. Learn how subsidizing satellite ISPs can actually widen the rural digital divide. Late last month, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden raised these issues in two letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. The letters, joined by several Oregon Representatives and U.S. Senators, asked the agency to correct the “administrative hurdles and eligibility problems within the ReConnect Program that have put critical broadband infrastructure assistance out of reach for Oregonians and communities across America.” Link: Tags: usdafederal fundingfederal grant

Southern Vermont Towns Unite for Communications District

muninetworks.org - March 11, 2020

Many Vermont communities are looking to ECFiber and Central Vermont Internet as models for the creation of communications union districts (CUD) to develop regional fiber networks. By combining several towns’ efforts, CUDs bring high-quality Internet service to underserved residents and local businesses. On March 3rd, four towns from Windham County in the southeastern corner of Vermont voted to create a CUD. The new Deerfield Valley CUD will join the small towns of Marlboro, Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington. All four communities are located in mountainous areas where infrastructure development is often challenging and costly. The towns’ joint venture will help finance broadband deployment in the region. Slow Speeds, High Costs The towns have been operating on slow DSL connectivity, which is insufficient for things like telehealth services, online education, and local economic development. According to state data from 2018, about 27 percent of all locations in Windham County do not have access to broadband. Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service, described how connectivity is an issue in the state because of the high price to deploy the infrastructure: Our geography is really challenging in Vermont — we are dispersed, we have small towns, we have farming communities — so the distance between service locations is far, so the cost of deploying broadband is more expensive per location . . . Hills are the enemy of wireless technology and it requires a lot more towers, for instance, to bring cell coverage to the same number of people. More power to small towns The CUD model minimizes the challenge of getting small, rural towns connected as the structure lets communities band together for modern Internet access. Once approved, the CUD acts as a separate municipal entity working toward the goal of building high-quality broadband infrastructure. The major benefit of joining a CUD is greater funding flexibility and the ability to issue bonds. Moreover, it puts towns at higher chance of getting federal grants and loans to provide service to rural communities. Since 2009, ECFiber — Vermont’s first communications district — has connected 23 towns with 1,400 miles of fiber and is now financially strong enough to cover its debt. "The towns aren’t on the hook for anything,” explained Carole Monroe, board member of ECFiber’s partner ValleyNet. “That’s the idea: to get these districts to the point here they have enough revenue where they can be paying back debt.” Listen to Carole Monroe discuss ECFiber on episode 251 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. As large telecom monopolies fail to invest in rural broadband, it is important for rural regions to forge ahead and take control of their connectivity, like ECFiber and now Windham County have. The next step for the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District is to develop a feasibility study with the Windham Regional Commission. Tags: Vermontecfibercommunications union districtregionaldeerfield valley cud

OEC Fiber Delivering the Gigabit Service People Want in Oklahoma - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 398

muninetworks.org - March 10, 2020

Norman, Oklahoma, is known for the University of Oklahoma and, with 30,000 students enrolled, one expects Internet access to be vibrant and readily available throughout the area. It hasn't always been that way, but thanks to Oklahoma Electric Cooperative and their OEC Fiber, those who live and work in the areas around the fringes of the University and the city now have access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. CEO of the co-op Patrick Grace and President of OEC Fiber David Goodspeed visit with Christopher during this week's episode. They talk about how the electric cooperative got into offering fiber to folks in their region and how they've financed the deployment. Patrick and David describe how local competition has influenced their project and how they knew they needed to pursue the prospect of offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service. They talk about their rapid expansion and share information on the popularity of their gig service. They also describe the reactions from subscribers who once had to rely on satellite or mobile hotspots as they've transitioned to at-home gigabit connectivity. Enthusiasm for OEC Fiber has been high, partly due to the services they offer, but also because the community and employees of the cooperative have a deep sense of pride in the contribution their project is making to the region.  This show is 42 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. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Transcript for this episode available soon! Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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: audiobroadband bitspodcastoklahomaFTTHoklahoma electric cooperativegigabitexpansionfundingrural electric coop

Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Planning Fiber-to-the-Home Upgrade

muninetworks.org - March 10, 2020

Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, provides traditional cable TV service, Internet access, and phone service to the community through its utility, Shrewsbury Electric & Cable Operations (SELCO). As the utilities board consults with their subscribers and looks forward, they've come to the conclusion that it's time to invest in fiber optic upgrades to improve operations and remain competitive. From 1907 to 1983 The community launched SELCO in 1907 as a "Street Lighting Committee" which, after negotiations with a local electric company, led to a local election. The local company had offered to supply power to the community if they would build their own "plant" — poles, wires, and lines. Both first and second town votes in support of the measure and the authorization to borrow $16,000 for construction of the plant led to what would become SELCO.  While community leaders first considered the possibility of developing a publicly owned cable television network in the mid 1960s, significant steps toward implementing the plan didn't happen until 1982. By then, the town had already been operating an electric utility for 75 years, had conducted a feasibility study, and knew they wanted to pursue the cable TV project. According to SELCO History: The First Hundred Years [PDF], "confusion and disarm of the cable industry at the time" made community leaders delay their decision to move forward in 1970. The project was shelved until 1982 when the Board of Selectmen created Shrewsbury Community Cablevision (SCC) with strong support from people in the community. The community faced interference from incumbent cable providers, which required a court challenge. Eventually, the town received a CATV license and activated their first subscriber on September 9, 1983. They served 5,600 households by the end of 1984. By 1999, SELCO was offering Internet access to subscribers. At the time, the community invested $6.3 million into the system in order to offer their service dubbed "TownISP." In 2006, SELCO started offering voice services through a partnership with Sprint/Nextel Communications. The move proved to be popular among residents and businesses who wanted to take advantage of the ability to bundle services. Fiber for the Future At the February 11th Board of Selectmen meeting, general manager of SELCO Michael Hale and Jackie Pratt, marketing and customer care manager, presented details on projects that the utility has planned for the future. In order to develop a strategy based on the needs of subscribers, the utility has conducted surveys to determine how the community rate electric, video, voice, and Internet access service. While respondents rated satisfaction for all services high — between 75% and 94.2% — they also considered local control a priority: 83 percent supported the policy. The Community Advocate reported that a majority of respondents expressed interest in fiber optic connectivity and are willing to put their money into fast, affordable, reliable Internet access : Interestingly, 51 percent would also be willing to spend $5 to $10 more per month to have Fiber-to- the-Home (FTTH) Internet service and that 41.4 percent thought broadband investment should be prioritized. The findings comport with last October’s decision by the SELCO Commission to move toward a FTTH upgrade in order to improve services and remain competitive. Hale said that SELCO will be seeking the authority to borrow $12 to $15 million for capital costs in May 2020 when Shrewsbury holds their Annual Town Meeting. The Board estimate the project will cost approximately $30 million. Town Manager Kevin Mizikar: “I think this is a huge competitive advantage to continue to leverage this unique relationship in having SELCO being a municipal utility and offering these services to our residents even beyond electricity.” Image of Shrewsbury Town Hall by Pvmoutside / CC BY-SA Tags: shrewsbury mamassachusettsupgradeFTTHmunielectric

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits NC Bonus Episode Six

muninetworks.org - March 9, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 6 of the Why NC Broadband Matters series on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Dr. LaTricia Townsend and Amy Huffman from the State Department of Information Technology about how local schools are facing challenges related to homework gap and how they are finding creative ways to bridge the gap. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Dr. LaTricia Townsend: It's everywhere. If you're not able to do your homework because you lack access or a device, you are in that homework gap. Lisa Gonzalez: We're bringing you another episode in our special Community Broadband Bits podcast series, Why NC Broadband Matters? I'm Lisa Gonzalez with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lisa Gonzalez: NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina nonprofit. Their mission is to attract, support and champion the universal availability of affordable, reliable, high-capacity Internet access, which is necessary for thriving local communities, including local businesses and a local workforce so each can compete in the global economy. The group has created the North Carolina chapter of CLIC, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. We are working with NC Broadband Matters to produce this series focusing on issues affecting people in North Carolina that also impact people in other regions. Lisa Gonzalez: Christopher recently went to North Carolina for the Reconnect Forum, organized by the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. While he was there, he had the chance to interview Dr. LaTricia Townsend of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and Amy Huffman from the State Department of Information Technology. Lisa Gonzalez: Dr. Townsend and Christopher discussed the homework gap not only in North Carolina but in communities all across the United States. Dr. Townsend describes the characteristics of the homework gap and explains how it affects students in all types of communities, both urban and rural. Then he talks with Amy, who provides some interesting details about the data that her office has collected about the homework gap and its pervasiveness across the State of North Carolina. She talks about efforts the state is taking to try to bridge that gap, and what local communities are doing. Lisa Gonzalez: Now here's Christopher with Dr. LaTricia Townsend from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and Amy Huffman from the North Carolina Department of Information Technologies Broadband Office. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 2:05 Christopher Mitchell: I'm here still at the North Carolina State University where I'm at the Institute for Emerging Issues where we're doing the Reconnect for Technological Opportunities program, a part of a wonderful series of programs that the university is doing. I'm speaking with Dr. LaTricia Townsend, who's the director of evaluation programs at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, which is housed here at NC State. Welcome to the show. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Thank you. Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking time today to talk with us. When I started researching you a little bit, I didn't even notice that you are here at the state university. Why don't you tell me a little bit about what the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation does? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Sure. The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation is a research arm of the College of Education. We aim to impact educational research, educational practice and educational policy in the State of North Carolina. Christopher Mitchell: What does that mean right now? In 2020 what does that mean? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Okay. We actually work in a number of ways. We have one group that looks at providing professional learning opportunities for teachers, administrators, and others across the state. And then my group, the Friday Institute Research and Evaluation team, better known as the fire team, we actually conduct educational research on a number of issues. And one of the issues near and dear to us is the digital divide or the homework gap. Christopher Mitchell: Okay. What does Friday? Where does that come from? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: It actually is named after William Friday, so it's a person's name. Christopher Mitchell: I thought that would be it, yeah. I was just reading some history books totally unrelated to this interview, and it was talking about people named Buick, Chevrolet, and I always wondered where those names come from. They're all named after people. We all knew about Ford, but most of us don't know about Olds or the other folks, so not too surprised to hear that. Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about the homework gap. What is the homework gap? 4:00 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: The homework gap is a tale of two stories. 70% of teachers actually assign homework that requires the Internet to complete it. The homework gap exists when there is a student who does not have access to either the Internet, reliable service to the Internet, or they do not have access to a device to actually complete that homework. Christopher Mitchell: And this is rural, urban, it's everywhere. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: It's everywhere. If you're not able to do your homework because you lack access or a device, you are in that homework gap. Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think maybe the only place that may not have it is Davidson, North Carolina where the group, E2D, the eliminate the digital divide group said that they did get devices and low income programs to everyone in the school. So maybe there's a place, but probably not. Christopher Mitchell: It is remarkably amazing. Actually I think this is one of those things that it's really an indictment of all of us that we've allowed us to get to 2020 while I'm not having broadband in every child's home where they can use these devices. And what you and I were going to talk about is I think why that's so important for people who might think of it more as a convenience or a nicety. Even if people believe that we all need high quality Internet access, they may not understand what a disadvantage it really is in today's climate to not have that as a student. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: When we think about school, we often harken back to our own memories of what school was like for us. I can remember myself being in an algebra 1 class, having my own textbook and my teacher assigning problems for me to go home and do. So I would take my own textbook, which was wrapped in a brown paper bag. I had to make sure that I wrapped my book to really protect it from damage. Christopher Mitchell: I remember that too. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would take my book home and often I'd be assigned questions one through 54 odd. I would do my assignment on notebook paper. I would then go back to class and we would review those problems and then continue moving forward. Those days are really gone. 6:08 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: And so often within schools, textbooks are very limited. The way things have moved now, most content is available on these learning management systems, so Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle and so forth. And so teachers put all the content that students need on these particular platforms. They put assignments there. And it's the expectation that students will be able to access those both in school and outside of school. They'd complete their assignments and then they would upload their assignments to these learning management platforms. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: And so if students don't have access to the Internet or to devices, it puts them at a grave disadvantage compared to others. Christopher Mitchell: Now I want to ask you a question that started as a snarky response to the 70% stat, that 70% of teachers are assigning homework that requires the Internet access in the home to do. What are the other 30% doing? Are these mostly school districts that are in very low income areas or do you have a sense of what the 30% is that aren't doing it? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I think sometimes it's content specific. So if you're thinking about some of your elective courses, although art could be done online, a lot of things, it just would not require homework in that fashion, and so I would say that would be it. I will say in terms of solutions, there are some districts that are moving into technologies that allow you to really cash or put into memory information so that students still have access to material once they leave. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: And so I think many are aware of some of the issues that are really pervasive around this issue and they're trying to come up with solutions. It's just not enough, fast enough. Christopher Mitchell: Okay. And so one of the implications of that then is that probably almost all school districts have teachers that are assigning homework that requires an Internet connection or assumes an Internet connection at home. 8:07 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would say that would be correct. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. How are schools dealing with the device issue? You mentioned is not just a matter of having home Internet access, or potentially access outside of the school more specifically, but also a device. How are schools dealing with the devices? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I think depending on the district, many of them are accessing their textbook funds, they are accessing federal, local, and foundational grants to actually purchase devices for their students. In some cases, districts have moved to one-to-one, so they are able to assign a device to students, either an iPad or some type of tablet or an actual laptop. And so in those cases, students have access to those devices round the clock. In cases where school districts can't necessarily afford that, there are community partners that at times will provide devices. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: So I would say there's a mixture of how they're really approaching that. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I didn't mention about your biography is that you're particularly focused on STEM, the science, technology, engineering and math. Is that right? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Yes. Christopher Mitchell: Okay. What is it like in these subjects? You mentioned ... I did the same experience with the math, the book covered in the paper bag and doing the assignments at home, although more often on the school bus or something like that. Is there a greater impact do you think in terms of ... doing science for instance, I think our goal is not just that they do their problem sets but that they're inspired to learn on their own. And it seems like it's a major loss of the creativity and the fact that most engineers I know who are really good, they're driven to just really figure things out on their own and without that connection in the home it seems like it would be losing something. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Right. I definitely think you lose something and I think we've also moved ... so within classrooms, if you think about science ... I'm actually a former science teacher myself. I taught chemistry for a number of years. Initially we think about doing experiments in the classroom, but now there is a lot of opportunity for students to actually do online simulations. And so we do lose something if there is an online simulation that a student isn't able to access. 10:24 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: So I can think for myself, thinking about gas laws in chemistry, if you're thinking about gases and you think about how is a gas impacted if I change its volume as well as its temperature? I'm able to really access these modules or these simulations that actually allow me to see that in a way that I necessarily wouldn't be able to see in a face to face classroom. So I think when you think about science in particular, it does put students at a disadvantage if they're not able to access content such as that. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: And so kind of circling back and we think about these courses that teachers develop, these online platforms for students, and so rather than this having this flat static textbook where students just have a discrete amount of text, they're able to add content from anywhere in the world, anywhere that exist on the Internet, put it in their course, and some of what they put in their course would be some of these demos that would not come to life if you just had that flat text book. Christopher Mitchell: Sure, yeah. I was thinking about also biology. I would love to learn biology again with innovations. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: They have several online disection programs that would be available. Christopher Mitchell: Right. Were you a teacher when this transition was happening? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would say somewhat at the tail end. I actually left the classroom in 2006 but the school that I was at, we actually had quite a bit of technology. We had I guess an online lab system. We had a series of probes that we could use and be able to upload that data. So it was just on the cusp of that becoming something that was important and it's only grown since then. 12:10 Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I've heard occasionally and I actually feel like I'm more sensitive to generally and wondering if people are thinking this is this idea that everything was better when we use books anyway. I mean I own 2,500 books. I'm a huge book fan. I also read a ton on a reading device now because I can highlight it and have it in the cloud, which is lovely. But there's this reaction and I think of it sometimes it's a Grumpy Gary reaction of like old guy who's just like, "Why do we even need this new tech stuff? Why wasn't the old way good enough?" We covered a little bit of that but I wonder if there's more there. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I think the old way is good and it was good. There are many techniques that you still would utilize today, but I think we're training students to be able to go into the world of work, and when students go into the world of work, I promise you a lot of what they're using really depends on their digital skills. So if we don't make school something that mirrors what they're going to experience when they go in the workforce, we're putting them at a disadvantage. And our students in North Carolina are not going to be ready within North Carolina, across the nation, or if we think about globally. Christopher Mitchell: Speaking about North Carolina, I'm curious, do you have a sense, how is rural North Carolina in particular impacted by this? Are the teachers having to just work extra to try and figure out alternatives to the online or are we just leaving kids behind? What's happening? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would say it varies. And I will say when we think rural, one of the things that we need to think about is also access. So there are people who want to have access to the Internet, but no matter how hard they try, they cannot because they're not providers or the terrain in their area doesn't allow them to have access, and so we do need to make sure that we remember that. 14:08 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would say those teachers are being creative. Some of them, as I said, are using technologies that allow them to store things so that students can access them once they're offline. Others are using a mixture of new tech and low tech just to make sure that they're meeting student needs. Christopher Mitchell: When did you join the Friday Institute? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I've been there since September of 2008. Christopher Mitchell: It was roughly around the time I get into this field myself. I just have to ask you, when you think back, what were you thinking of in 2012? Were you thinking like "Wow, in 2020 we'll have solved a lot of these problems? Probably we won't have so many people unable to access the technology." Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I think you bring an important point. When I first joined the Friday Institute, the project that I worked on was called Impact. Impact was a project that looked at closing the digital divide. It looked at providing devices as well as Internet to schools so that they would be able to really meet the needs of students. These schools that were participating received funding to purchase laptops. The big thing then was to purchase Smart Boards for the classroom. They also worked with their school district to get additional access points to really amplify the Internet within their buildings. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: At that point I really thought things were looking up. I guess for me, thinking about the schools that were engaged in that project, when I think about where some of them are now, we give people money, but the thing about technology is that it ages so quickly, and so when you once were flush with materials and resources, just wait a few years and then now it's dated. And without continual funding to be able to really move things along, you still are back where you are. 16:13 Dr. LaTricia Townsend: So thinking about when I first came 12 years ago, I really thought that things would be much further than Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, last thing I want to ask you is again a question that I feel like some people deal with, which is the schools have to figure out how to get these devices into kids' hands. When I was that age, I wasn't as responsible as I am now, in part because I've broken so many things and I've learned about it. How do kids react when they get these devices? Is it something that they value or is it something that they're frequently breaking and the school district has to deal with that? Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Overall, I've seen students value it. Students have access to devices. Most of them have phones or their parents have phones. There was a phone in the house. In a survey that we did for the Broadband Infrastructure Office, 98% of the respondents said that they had access to a mobile device and it was the preferred way to access the Internet. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: So I think if you provide a device for many students, they're digital natives and so the first thing they do is they expect it to be touchscreen and so you start seeing their little fingers flick. They could be as young as three years old going through. So I think there's a sense of, I know what a device is, I'm excited to have it. I think it's doing some digital literacy training to get students to move from using technology just for entertainment purposes, but then to start using technology to really be productive and help them in their work. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: I would say with schools when they have these devices, there's always an insurance program that's available and often one of the cost that is passed along to participants in these programs is the insurance cost. And so for students to buy in and get the device, they do pay a nominal fee for that insurance cost and that allows districts to do replacements if necessary. 18:21 Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, and this is the last question I just want to ask you about, because you mentioned the caching and I think it's good to hear because I just imagine some of the kids particularly that are on DSL where it's less reliable, I can imagine situations in which they may do their homework and then lose it before it gets saved. When I do that through my own fault and not saving a document that I'm working on, there's few things more infuriating than having to rewrite your own work. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Right. I would say there are actual technologies that are out there that allow caching on these devices. They also encourage students to work offline. And so creating a Microsoft Word document rather than using Google Docs and then pasting that material in once they get to school, and so teaching students to do work-arounds so that they're able to continue to move their process forward. Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thank you so much for your time. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: You're welcome. Christopher Mitchell: It's amazing. It feels like a whole new world learning. I have a four year old so I'll be seeing this soon, but it's fascinating. Dr. LaTricia Townsend: Thank you for having me today. Christopher Mitchell: Here I am talking with Amy Huffman. Amy is the Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager at the Broadband Infrastructure Office in North Carolina's Department of Information Technology. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to the show. Amy Huffman: Thank you so much for having me. Christopher Mitchell: I'll ask you to use your line then. What do you do? Amy Huffman: I work to close the digital divide in North Carolina. Christopher Mitchell: That's great. I think it's worth noting North Carolina is getting a lot of praise I think from other states in terms of the many different ways it's approaching the digital divide. Amy Huffman: Well, thank you. I think that that's because we've had a lot of wonderful people that have come before us and done a lot of great work and we've had continued sustained leadership and we have great leadership now. 20:09 Christopher Mitchell: Tell me, what is your specific focus within the Broadband Infrastructure Office. Amy Huffman: Sure. I work mostly on digital inclusion and policy. Christopher Mitchell: Okay. We're going to talk about the homework gap. So for people who haven't come across that term before, what is that? Amy Huffman: The homework gap was a term that was coined by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. And she calls it the cruelest part of the digital divide. But it's basically when kids are assigned homework that requires Internet access and they go home and they don't have Internet access. Christopher Mitchell: What kind of patterns do you see in the homework gap as you're looking at it in North Carolina? Amy Huffman: A few years ago we did a pilot study with the Friday Institute at NC State University to survey North Carolina's K-12 households to find out who is affected by the homework gap. Our survey, about 10% of our respondents responded that they didn't have access at home. The cause for most of them was cost. About 63ish% said it was cost and it had some interesting impacts on their daily lives. So for instance, parents that didn't have access at home felt less comfortable helping students at home. Amy Huffman: What we found in our survey and what we know to be true in terms of the digital divide in North Carolina is that this cuts across rural, urban communities. It cuts across the whole state. Frankly, no county is safe from the homework gap. No city is. It affects all communities in North Carolina. We estimate probably based on our survey response and national data, we'd love to have a great robust data set that we don't have that right now, but we estimate that anywhere between 10 and 20% of students across the state are affected by the homework gap. Christopher Mitchell: I'm really struck by the results of that study because if you look at Pew Research or others, there's a significant doubt as to how much cost is the main issue, and you found that it was a main issue. Which reflects the experience of just about everyone that does work in this but doesn't really reflect the experience of the surveys. And so I'm curious, did that strike you as odd at all or did you make sense of why that's happening? 22:24 Amy Huffman: I actually think it confirmed what I assumed would be the case. Based on what we had heard from across the state and from people dealing with the homework gap in their communities that a lot of the folks that didn't have access might actually have access at home but can't afford it or don't have a meaningful device or don't have the skills. So it wasn't that shocking. The second biggest reason why folks didn't have access at home was availability. So there is still a significant need in our state to make sure that everyone has the access itself, but cost out-trumped that by almost three to one. Christopher Mitchell: Are you familiar with what they're doing in Michigan around the curriculum that they've been developed? Amy Huffman: I am. I think it's really, really exciting and I love seeing that Merit's taking the lead. I think that's great. The survey they put out is really, really great. We've looked at that and the speed test tool that they used to collect data I think is really interesting, and we're looking at doing something similar here Christopher Mitchell: It is really terrific. I wanted to say that because I feel like those are the only two states I know that have really taken action around the homework gap to try to get some of this data; you and Michigan. Others recognize that it's a problem but I feel like we don't really have a sense of the broad contours of it. Amy Huffman: We don't and the reason we're interested in the data itself is data's only so good as what it leads to. We want to make smart data-driven policy decisions. We want to make decisions that are precise and actually help the people on the ground, and we don't feel like we can do that if we don't have a robust understanding of where the homework gap is, who it affects and why. 24:07 Christopher Mitchell: What are you doing? What can the state of North Carolina do to try to close the homework gap? Amy Huffman: Governor Cooper included in his budget, $5 million that would be dedicated to closing the homework gap in the state. That hasn't gone through, but something like that, creating a dedicated fund that could help communities, schools, libraries, what have you, close the homework gap in their communities would be really great. Christopher Mitchell: Do you have a sense of how that would be spent? Amy Huffman: Yes. We'd give the communities opportunities to decide on what they need in their communities. They'd need to do a survey and see who doesn't have access and does. Then they'd get the opportunity to decide what tools need to be implemented to close the homework gap in their communities. We'd have a couple of different options for them. Amy Huffman: Another thing we're working on, we received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services two years ago now in collaboration with the state library here in North Carolina and through that grant we're working to equip local librarians become leaders in closing the homework gap in their communities. We see libraries, schools, healthcare organizations as trusted resources in their communities, particularly libraries. We know lots of folks go to them anyways looking for help with homework or a place to do their homework and so it seemed a natural fit to equip them to actually have the tools to close the homework gap in their communities. Amy Huffman: So through that pilot program, we're working with four communities, Robison County, Caswell County, Hyde County, and Mitchell County. The libraries there are partnering with a local middle school and delivering digital literacy training to parents and their children for eight workshops. The students get to take home a Hotspot for the school year with which they can do their homework. And we specifically partnered with schools that already had a one to one program so that they'd have a computer in the home. But if they complete six out of the eight trainings, they also get to take home a refurbished device from one of our device re-furbisher partners, Kramden. 26:17 Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. There's two components that you've been mentioning. I think one is the access in the home and the other is the device. If we ignore the device for a second and just pretend that's not a problem, which your program may be helping already, for those people who would say, "We have libraries, we have McDonald's that has free wifi, why is there a homework gap that we should be worried about?" How do you respond to that? Amy Huffman: Sure. First libraries aren't open 24 hours a day. We actually have heard several stories of children and parents sitting outside libraries after hours when it's closed, and yeah, you can imagine the safety issues or how cold it might be if there's weather. We also know that many folks in our state have transportation challenges and so they may not have a car or be able to drive to McDonald's or the library. And then many folks in our state don't have to do those things, so I don't know that we have to be telling people that do have to do those things to get the access that that's what they should have to do. Christopher Mitchell: Right. I've heard the stories of the frustration of someone having driven 30 miles and returned home only to find that there was another part of the assignment and they have to go back to that location again. I have it pretty good living in the city. This stress, we don't need to introduce into these families. Amy Huffman: Absolutely. There's so many barriers and challenges that children face day to day anyways to complete their homework or to thrive within their school system, this doesn't need to be one of them. Christopher Mitchell: What are the next steps then that can be done beyond what's already been happening? 28:03 Amy Huffman: Sure. Well, here in the state we want to continue to encourage local communities to implement programs that address the homework gap in their communities, but we also think we as a state should be leading this as well. Funding is needed in order to close the homework gap, but also smart policy is as well. The federal government could also dedicate more research or time or funding to closing the homework gap. There's many things that they could do as well. Christopher Mitchell: I was really disappointed that Angela [Seafer 00:28:35] had to leave the event early today because of the discussion at the very end of the state would like to see that every community has its own digital inclusion plan and the Institute on Emerging Issues is working with the electric cooperatives and your state agency, as I understand it then, to help communities develop these digital inclusion plans. That seems quite exciting frankly in terms of I think putting the responsibility on the local units to plan, but also having a plan for developing all of these plans. Amy Huffman: Absolutely. We think it's really exciting. In our work, we know that communities know what they need best. They know their citizens, they know what's needed, and so for them to create their own plan and then to have some potential resources to begin implementing those plans, we think is really, really exciting. Christopher Mitchell: A question that I like to think about, we did this video series, this crude animation with badly voiced-over characters about a rural scenario, and in it a former colleague of mine, Nick, brought life to this guy Grumpy Gary. And I think about Grumpy Gary a lot. He's an older guy who just is a very curmudgeonly. He would say things like, "Why do we even need to have kids doing homework on the Internet? Shouldn't we just give them books and call it a day? That's the way I was raised. Why is it important that they be on the Internet at all anyway?" 30:06 Amy Huffman: Well in North Carolina the General Assembly in 2015, I need to check me on that, passed a law- Christopher Mitchell: That's the neighborhood certainly. Amy Huffman: ... passed a law that moved all funding that went to paying for textbooks to pay for digital learning. In North Carolina there aren't printed textbooks being purchased anymore. If there are some in schools, it's because they were purchased before the law was fully implemented. So we already have moved to the point where it's become a requirement for students to have Internet access to do their homework or to do their schoolwork within the walls of the school. Amy Huffman: It's no longer a question of should they or should they not? It's already happening. And so the question now is do we want to make it equitable? Do we want to make sure that all students can access the same resources in and outside of the four walls of the school? And we think that the answer is yes. And so we want to make sure that all students have the same access to resources. Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think that's one of the things that really resonates with me is that not only is there a homework gap, but it's perversely growing in the sense that we would hope that these tools, these new technologies would enable us to get rid of the old inequities to make sure that people had a fair shot. Amy Huffman: Absolutely. In some ways we almost think it should be called the opportunity gap. This opportunity gap, these tools that really have someone referred to them as they're the ultimate bootstrapping tools. Anyone can build a business now from anywhere. I could build a business right here from my computer if I have the tools. And to make sure for millions of kids to not have those same tools that their peers have increases the already existing divide. Christopher Mitchell: I was in high school when the Internet became commercialized, I guess I was almost in high school, whatever. Who knows how old I was. I remember in 10th grade in particular doing a homework assignment, which I did these independent research on the Internet to do this thing. If I had thought then, and even going through college, and again still not many people were using the Internet, it was really starting to catch on then, looking ahead I would have assumed that this would have been this great leveling influence, and instead it just seems that the kids who have the most opportunity are able to speed ahead. And I know that we can do better. I guess one of the things that I'd be curious about is I felt like we would not be having this conversation in 2020. 32:41 Amy Huffman: I agree. I agree. Christopher Mitchell: There's a part of me that just sort of wonders in 2025 will we be done with it? I hope. Amy Huffman: I sure hope so. I sure hope so. Yeah. Hopefully at least here in North Carolina, but really I have that hope for the whole country. Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, I have to say that when you see a room like this, this is the room that was filled with people, I'm sure there's many more people probably were streaming in online, many more people will be watching in incoming days, there's a lot of attention that's being paid to this. And I feel like the work of people to highlight this over the many years, people like Angela Seafer, I hope that we're going to take it seriously now. Amy Huffman: I hope so too and I do feel that we're at a tipping point. I think that there's more attention paid to these issues now because they're so in your face, we can't avoid them anymore. Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for coming on talking about the homework gap. And I think also making sure that these states are taking these things seriously. I think the research that you're doing, I hope we see a lot of other states copy that and adopt that approach. Amy Huffman: I hope so too. And I will just say for any state that would like to do research around this, we're happy to share a survey with them. We're happy to walk them through what we did if they'd like any help with that. Christopher Mitchell: All right. Thank you so much. Amy Huffman: Thank you. Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning into this episode in our Why NC Broadband Matters podcast series and for listening to the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Remember to follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. And if you follow @ncheartsgb on Twitter, you'll tap into all the NC Broadband Matters material. We want to thank Shane Ivers of SilvermanSound.com for the series music, What's the Angle, licensed through Creative Commons. And we want to thank you for listening. Until next time. Tags: transcript

Oregon Politicians Press USDA for Changes to ReConnect Broadband Program

muninetworks.org - March 9, 2020

In two letters sent at the end of February, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reconsider certain aspects of the agency’s ReConnect broadband grant and loan program. The senators’ letters, addressed to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, called on the agency to address, “administrative hurdles and eligibility problems within the ReConnect Program that have put critical broadband infrastructure assistance out of reach for Oregonians and communities across America.” The USDA, which is currently accepting applications for the second round of ReConnect funding, has awarded more than $600 million in grants and loans since launching the program in 2019. “A High-stakes Gamble” Merkley and Wyden’s first letter [pdf], joined by Oregon Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio, and Kurt Schrader, raised lingering problems with the USDA’s determination of eligible areas and the application process for the program. The letter reads: We heard several concerns from our constituents in Oregon that the initial design of the ReConnect Program limited accessibility for local Internet service providers (ISPs) due to both administrative issues and eligibility restrictions. While changes have been made to improve the program, we continue to hear from many Oregonians that several major issues unfortunately remain. In particular, the Oregon officials identified as barriers the complicated and costly application process as well as an inaccurate and unclear designation of underserved areas. “Many local ISPs feel as if [applying] is more akin to a high-stakes gamble rather than soliciting funding for a fiber-to-the-premises project,” they explained. Additionally, the lawmakers noted that the ReConnect program’s scoring criteria can prioritize less rural, non-tribal areas, writing, “If this grant focuses on bringing broadband to rural and unserved America, the evaluation criteria seem to contradict the program’s mission.” Satellite Subsidies Limit Opportunity The Oregon senators’ second letter [pdf] addressed another major issue with the ReConnect eligibility criteria — USDA’s decision to make rural areas where satellite providers are receiving federal subsidies ineligible for the program, despite acknowledgement that satellite is not broadband. We previously covered how these subsidies for the satellite provider ViaSat threaten to widen the digital divide in rural America. Merkley and Wyden, joined by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, wrote: This USDA-imposed restriction — which is not required by law — prevents rural communities across the country from receiving their share of over $500 million in federal funding for high-speed broadband, which is vital to reducing the digital divide and harnessing important opportunities in telemedicine and online education, and the high-paying jobs that come with them. “USDA can, and should, fix this,” they concluded. Follow our coverage of the USDA for more updates on the ReConnect program. View the Oregon Senators' letters below. 2-26-20 OR Sens and US Sens letter to USDA Perdue.pdf 2-26-20 OR Sens and Reps letter to USDA Perdue.pdfTags: usdafederal fundingfederal governmentoregonfederal grant

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 9

muninetworks.org - March 9, 2020


Thousands in San Jose lack Internet access. Here’s how the city plans to change that by Maggie Angst, The Mercury News   Illinois  USDA invests $3.4 million in broadband for rural Illinois communities, Agrinews    Mississippi  Eastern Mississippi co-op considering offering broadband, The Sacramento Bee  A Mississippi electric utility cooperative (4-County Electric Power Association) is considering whether to provide its customers with broadband internet more than a year after a state law allowed co-ops to offer the services.   North Carolina Here's what new report has to say about North Carolina’s broadband expansion, WRAL TechWire    Ohio Bridging the digital divide in Youngstown is a work in progress by Justin Dennis, Mahoning Matters   Pennsylvania  Westmoreland and other counties identify Internet access as critical need, plan service expansion by Kris B. Mamula, Post-Gazette    Texas  USDA grant could help hundreds in rural Walker County get broadband by Joseph Brown, Government Technology  As technology advances, we continue working to make our distribution system smarter and more robust.” MidSouth CEO Kerry Kelton. “Being able to add fiber across our utility network will allow us to modernize operations and enhance our awareness about what’s happening across our system. This enhances our response times during outages and improve reliability.   Virginia Spanberger announces broadband project for central Virginia by Darnell Myrick    General How states are expanding broadband access, PEW   Bridging digital divides between schools and communities by Nicol Turner Lee, Brookings Even in communities with exceptional broadband in their schools, how are student experiences affected when nearby institutions and establishments, including libraries, churches and other public facilities, have limited digital resources and connectivity? How does this impact students’ ability to share the digital experiences learned in school to the community?   Want to solve America’s problems? Start with broadband by Adrianne Benton Furniss, Fortune   In rural areas, private partnerships waste no time in closing the digital divide by Adrienne Patton, Broadband Breakfast    Why rural broadband no longer be an oxymoron by Rob Pegoraro, Fast Company Tags: media roundup

Mohave Electric Co-op Will Deploy Fiber for Broadband in Arizona

muninetworks.org - March 6, 2020

For the first time, an electric cooperative in Arizona plans to develop fiber optic infrastructure in its service area in order to expand broadband availability. Mohave Electric Cooperative (MEC) recently received a state grant to develop fiber optic infrastructure and expects to spend the next two years connecting residents and businesses for high-quality Internet access. State Funding Efforts Arizona's Rural Broadband Development Grant Program, which awards up to $1 million for shovel-ready projects, will provide funding to MEC for infrastructure deployment. Two other grants went to private sector providers for a middle mile project and for a Fiber-to-the-Business project. The co-op's network will enable symmetrical connections of up to 10 gigabits. The region is in the far west-central area of the state where Arizona meets the tip of Nevada and California, not far from the Mojave National Preserve and the Havasu National Wildlife Refuge. MEC will build out their network to around 35,000 premises in Bullhead City, Fort Mohave, and Mohave Valley.  In addition to the development grants, Arizona awarded four planning grants to local governments of fewer than 150,000 (municipalities) or 750,000 (counties). One of the grants went to Gila County, which has been working on their Broadband Master Plan. Native American Tribes and nonprofits were also eligible. Read more about the state's program hereLocal Support Back in October 2019, the Bullhead City Council passed a resolution to support the cooperative's plan to develop the project. Community leaders responded to the results of the MEC survey in which 95 percent of respondents indicated that they wanted broadband from the co-op. Mayor Tom Brady noted that his office often received complaints about incumbents Suddenlink and Frontier. At the time, MEC said that the cooperative plan includes service to 100 percent of its service area, but officials from MEC stated that the ability to obtain funding would determine their ability to implement the plan. “It’s wonderful our members are excited about this project, but we need to be careful not to get ahead of ourselves,” said Tyler Carlson, CEO of MEC. “Although the board of directors has voted to move forward, there are still many steps left in the process before the service is available. “We are moving forward, but completing this effort is contingent on finding the necessary funding.” Possible Partners MEC plans to partner with TransWorld Network (TWN) Communications , an ISP that partners with electric cooperatives, providing Internet access, voice services, and fixed wireless services via co-op infrastructure. “The communities served by Mohave Electric have been underserved for reliable, true broadband service for too long,” said Colin Wood, CEO of TWN Communications. “We are excited to help them fill that gap and bring service to their members.” Tags: arizonarural electric coopruralFTTHstate policygrantmohave electric cooperative

Contending with the Homework Gap - Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Bonus Episode Six

muninetworks.org - March 5, 2020

This is episode number six of the special podcast project we're working on with NC Broadband Matters to share North Carolina news, challenges, and innovations about broadband in their state.  Christopher went on a trip to in February to attend the Institute for Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University. The event addressed a wide range of topics, including digital equity, legislative efforts, and the homework gap, which is the focus of this week's conversation with Dr. LaTricia Townsend and Amy Huffman. Dr. Townsend and Christopher discuss her work and the research at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, especially their findings related to the homework gap. Amy, who is the Digital Inclusion and Policy Manager at the Broadband Infrastructure Office at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, describes more state specific data and some of the efforts happening at the local and state level. We learn more about how, as schools embrace technology to ready students for adulthood, they must also grapple with the problem of ensuring those students have the technological tools they need to make use of that innovation. Dr. Townsend describes some of the challenges that local schools face in both urban and rural regions and the creative methods they're using to overcome those challenges. Amy explains some of the reasons North Carolina's children can only move forward on bringing technology into their schoolwork and presents state-level policy recommendations aimed at expanding broadband access at home. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 35 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed, at the Community Broadband Bits page, or at the NC Broadband Matters page. We encourage you to check out other "Why NC Broadband Matters" content at the podcast feed so you don't miss future bonus content that may not appear in the Community Broadband Bits Podcast feed. Read the transcript for this episode. Listen to other Community Broadband Bits episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Thanks to Shane Ivers for the Music: What's The Angle? by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.comCreative Commons Attribution (4.0) license. Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsnorth carolinaNC Hearts Gigabiteducationschool district

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