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RVBA Expanding to Residential Fiber Connectivity in Virginia

muninetworks.org - February 19, 2020

The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) in Virginia recently announced that they are now ready to begin developing residential Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connections in Roanoke and Botetourt Counties and the cities of Salem and Roanoke. The Next Logical Step Since 2016, the open access network has provided services to businesses, public facilities, and community anchor institutions in the region. In 2017, the Authority connected one multi-dwelling unit in the city of Roanoke and began working with a private Internet access company to provide service. Now, the RVBA is determined to connect every premise with high-quality Internet access. The Roanoke Times reports that: The process begins with a survey of residents in the Roanoke Valley the municipal broadband authority announced Monday morning. The survey, available on the RVBA website, will help determine where the highest demand for the service is, but with a mind to reach wide areas of the region. “We’re changing the game,” said RVBA President and CEO Frank Smith. “We’re changing the infrastructure, allowing us to differentiate ourselves across the region and across the country.” The municipal authority’s mission “has been to be an economic development engine, drive competition, bring more choice in … but also to serve the geographically and economically underserved,” Smith said. “We want to make sure we build in places that make sense economically but make sure we do not ignore those that are economically disadvantaged.” The RVBA will use survey results to determine where to deploy. Smith anticipates construction to begin this year and expects one provider to be offering service when the residential connections go online, but more Internet service providers to be added as the number of subscribers increases. Multiple ISPs have expressed an interest in delivering residential services via the RVBA fiber optic network, says Smith.  A Long and Arduous Journey Learn more about the challenges and triumphs the RVBA has faced as they've worked to expand fiber optic infrastructure in Virginia's Roanoke Valley. Listen to Christopher talk with Smith for episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from back in 2016. Watch this local report on the project: Tags: roanoke countyroanoke valleyvirginiaopen accessvideoruralsurvey

Expect Broken Promises From T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

muninetworks.org - February 19, 2020

The merger between T-Mobile and Sprint is moving forward, notwithstanding legal opposition from multiple state attorneys general. In a recent article, Christopher Mitchell Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and Paul Goodman, Technology Equity Director from The Greenlining Institute, explained the tenuous reasoning behind the recent court decision and why they expect nothing good for subscribers and the state of competition as this deal comes to fruition. We've shared the article in full here; you can also read it at The Greenlining Institute website. EXPECT BROKEN PROMISES FROM T-MOBILE/SPRINT MERGER By Christopher Mitchell and Paul Goodman Earlier this week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit to stop the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. As a result, it’s highly likely that by the end of the year, Sprint will no longer exist, and that AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile will be the only major wireless providers in the United States. The judge’s decision is 170 pages long but boils down to this: The judge believes that even though T-Mobile will have the ability to increase prices, it won’t, because T-Mobile promised not to. What, Exactly, has T-Mobile Promised? The same things that communications providers have promised us for decades when drumming up support for a merger—lower prices, the creation of thousands of jobs, and new and exciting service offerings. As a result, the company argues, T-Mobile will have the size and resources to transform itself into a company like AT&T. It’s that last sentence that’s particularly troubling. In 2018, AT&T purchased Time Warner Media, arguing that doing so would result in lower prices, the creation of thousands of jobs, and new and exciting product offerings. Which sounds fantastic, except for the fact that AT&T failed to deliver on those promises:

  • Instead of lowering prices, AT&T has increased its prices twice in the past year (it also gave some its customers a “bonus” of 15 GB of data a month, charging an additional ten dollars for the privilege).
  • Instead of creating thousands of jobs, AT&T has laid off almost 38,000 employees since late 2017.
  • AT&T promised that non-AT&T customers would still be able to stream Time Warner content (shows like Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory, and channels like HBO), but subsequently cut off access to that content, making it exclusive to its own streaming service, despite that decision resulting in more than a billion dollars of lost revenue in a single quarter. It may seem weird that AT&T made a decision that cost it money, but it is banking on making up that money by forcing folks to pay for AT&T’s own streaming service. Or you might prefer the alternate explanation: AT&T makes some really dumb decisions sometimes.
While those broken promises may seem shocking, they didn’t come as a surprise to any of the consumer advocates. For years, we’ve watched merging companies promise the moon, get their merger approved, and go back on their word. That’s why it’s particularly disheartening that the court approved the T-Mobile/Sprint merger that clearly results in less competition merely because the judge seems to really like soon to be former T-Mobile CEO John Legere. But three years (perhaps months) from now, organizations like Greenlining and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance will be saying “we told you so”—and trust me, we hate saying “we told you so,” because it means that communications services remain unavailable and unaffordable for millions of people in the U.S. This is a Big Deal! Many low-income households have wireless connections because competition from four providers has kept prices far lower than the prices for fixed connections in the home. Now those devices will be out of reach for still more millions of struggling households. Depressed yet? Well, there’s one more piece of bad news. Giant corporations closely watched the AT&T/Time Warner Media and T-Mobile/Sprint proceedings, and the courts have sent them a pretty clear message: “We’ll approve your merger, no matter how bad it is for consumers or what the law says.” Companies are going to announce new mergers faster than … well, faster than AT&T announces price hikes. Their biggest challenge will be finding another firm to merge with given how little competition we see. Our best hope to reverse these trends lies in building alternatives – networks that are directly accountable to us – as well as organizing to ensure our elected officials are more afraid of us than corporate lobbyists. We need stronger laws that judges are less able to disregard because they find a CEO to be super captivating.   Image by Volker Glätsch from Pixabay Tags: mobilet-mobilesprintmergercompetitioncourt

Matt Schmit Leading Broadband from Minnesota to Illinois - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 395

muninetworks.org - February 18, 2020

Minnesota's Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program provides funding for deployment of broadband networks in rural regions of the state. The program, which started in 2014, has helped extend necessary high-quality Internet access infrastructure to dozens of communities. Without this week's guest, Matt Schmit, the program would never have become a reality. Matt and Christopher knew each other long before the program was even an idea — when they were in grad school together — and you can tell they’re friends with a lot to reminisce about. Matt, who is now working on broadband in Illinois, was one of the State Senators who drove the conversation that moved the needle on rural broadband and who led the development of the state program that has accomplished so much in Minnesota. He and Christopher talk about the process and what it was like to go from recognizing the need to creating a program that is making change. Because of his ability to get results in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” Matt is now working in Illinois, where billions of state dollars have been earmarked for infrastructure, which includes broadband deployment. Matt is now Deputy Director at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, where he will work to determine the best way forward in deploying broadband as critical infrastructure. He and Christopher talk about some of the challenges he expects to face, what it’s like working in Illinois as compared to his work in Minnesota, and his hopes for the new state broadband program. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 49 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  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 bitsminnesotaillinoismatt schmitstate policyfundinglegislationfederal fundingfcc

Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 17

muninetworks.org - February 17, 2020


USDA invests $4.4 million in rural broadband infrastructure in Georgia’s Gilmer County, USDA   Illinois  State to release $50 million in grants to expand broadband by Kade Heather, SJ-R   Kansas  Not connected and no Netflix: ‘It’s frankly embarrassing’ in these Kansas towns by Kevin Hardy and Jonathan Shorman, The Kansas City Star  The lack of reliable and high-speed Internet is a well known problem across rural America. But the gaps in access continue to widen as more and more work, school and leisure activities migrate to the digital world. That has accelerated the need for ultra-fast speeds at a time when many parts of Kansas and Missouri have yet to reach the baseline of what’s considered high-speed Internet.   Missouri  How a new model can expand broadband access across communities by Blair Levin, Brookings Institution    New York  New York City and the FCC have two very different plans for expanding broadband access by Blair Levin, Brookings Institution    Wisconsin Demand for broadband Internet remains high in rural Wisconsin by Shamane Mills, WPR    General  Electric cooperatives could be the key to solving the rural digital divide by Marguerite Reardon, C|NET With broadband becoming as essential as running water, communities like the ones served by Wood's co-op say they need access to high-speed broadband to improve people's daily lives and provide a standard of living equal to that of urban and suburban parts of the country. It's a problem that spans the country from Oklahoma to New Hampshire.   Frustrated by flawed broadband maps, states are trying to create their own by Andrea Noble, Nextgov   The 5G experience in 2020, POTs and PANs  The cellular carriers are in full 5G marketing mode. If you believe the TV commercials, you’d now think that the country is blanketed by 5G, as each cellular carrier claims a bigger coverage area than their competitors. However, almost all of their claims are marketing hype. What’s the reality of 5G coverage in 2020?   Measuring the gap, NDIA Tags: media roundup

2020 Mountain Connect Set for May 18th - 20th

muninetworks.org - February 17, 2020

Make it to Colorado in the spring for Mountain Connect on May 18th - 20th. This is one of Christopher's favorite events located at the picturesque Keystone Resort and Conference Center in the Rockies. This year's theme is "Broadband: The Great Enabler for Disruptive Technologies."

Learn more and register here. Regional Focus Many past attendees cite the regional focus of Mountain Connect as one of the reasons they find the event especially valuable. The mission of Mountain Connect is to move our western US communities forward by providing relevant and targeted content to help them make the most effective decisions as they build new or expand existing telecommunications infrastructure that enable the long-term vision of a community. We are agnostic of the technology that delivers broadband and as such, believe this provides a well-balanced foundation to make an educated and informed decision with input from industry and community leaders from across the US. Finally, we believe in looking forward and are inclusive of trending technologies that will shape our broadband future. Expect to hear from some top-notch speakers, including:

The agenda is still being solidified, but some of the topics to be included on panel discussions and from speakers include:
  • The Impact of Emerging Technologies
  • Why Master Planning is Paramount to Long-term Success
  • Unique Funding Alternatives
  • Policy and Legislative Considerations
  • 5G/Small Cell
  • Update on the progress on our Public Safety Broadband Network
  • Economic Development
  • Experimental Wireless Technologies with our Research & Academic Partners
Tracks include:
  • Community Development
  • Western US: A Study in Community Use Cases   NEW!
  • Emerging Technologies
  • Public Safety
  • Experimental Wireless 
Learn more about the conference, the venue, and even see past agendas at the Mountain Connect website. Check out this video of testimonials from folks attending a past Mountain Connect Conference: Tags: eventcoloradomountainconferencechristopher mitchell

Double Diligence: Michigan Cities Move Forward With Feasibility Study

muninetworks.org - February 14, 2020

A pair of Michigan cities are taking the next step toward a municipal broadband network by pursuing a feasibility study.

Farmington and Farmington Hills, suburbs of Detroit, approved the joint broadband feasibility study at the end of January. Officials hope the study will help reveal whether one or both cities should invest in a municipal broadband network. "It really will give us a much better understanding of how Farmington Hills and Farmington may or may not benefit by exploring this further," Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman told local news. Cities Unite for Broadband Farmington and Farmington Hills are bustling suburbs of Detroit, located approximately 25 miles northwest of the city. With a combined population of over 90,000, the two cities are close geographically as well as economically and politically. Farmington Hills almost entirely surrounds Farmington, and officials have previously considered merging their municipal governments. Though that proposal failed, the cities still share certain services, such as the school district. In 2018, Farmington and Farmington Hills formed a joint task force to study the creation of a municipal broadband network in the cities. The task force, “began with the premise that broadband Internet is a critically important 4th utility, along with electricity, gas and water,” explains the Farmington Hills website. The effort was prompted by residents who complained about limited broadband options and high costs, Farmington Councilman Joe LaRussa told a state news site. “Fiber-based Internet infrastructure was being prioritized in business corridors and bypassing neighborhoods and more remote areas of Farmington Hills,” he explained. Officials like LaRussa believe a municipal fiber network could help distinguish the cities, as well as lower costs and improve local Internet access. “We really don't have vacant land that we can build on and create value that way, so we were coming up with creative ways to create value,” he shared. Feasibility for Farmington, Farmington Hills The city of Farmington approved the feasibility study at the council meeting on January 21, and Farmington Hills followed suit during the January 27 city council meeting [pdf]. The municipalities agreed to split the cost of the $67,000 study, with Farmington Hills covering 75 percent of the price and the smaller Farmington responsible for the remaining 25 percent. On the recommendation of the joint task force, the cities selected CCG Consulting and Finley Engineering to conduct the feasibility study. Both firms have extensive experience working with municipalities and have prepared broadband feasibility studies for cities like Cortez, Colorado [PDF], and Davis, California. View their proposal at the end of the Farmington City Council meeting agenda [PDF]. The feasibility study process will last approximately four months. Afterward, Farmington and Farmington Hills can choose whether to proceed with a municipal broadband network, either together or separately. Read about other communities that have collaborated for better local connectivity, such as Baileyville and Calais in Maine or ECFiber in Vermont. Tags: michiganfeasibilityfarmington mifarmington hills miregional

Eight Pennsylvania Counties Join Forces to Improve Regional Connectivity

muninetworks.org - February 13, 2020

Local officials in eight mostly-rural counties in southwest Pennsylvania are combining efforts to determine first, what connectivity is available and, second, what can be done to improve it.

Seeking Updated Information

Westmoreland, Fayette, Cambria, Somerset, Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, and Fulton counties have been working with consulting firm Design Nine to develop a survey to share with residents in the region. The Regional Broadband Task Force, established by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAP&DC), gathered limited data in the past. They estimate that six percent of folks in the region live in places without wired broadband Internet access. An earlier study determined that: ...2.3 percentage of the 354,751 residents fall below that level of service [25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download]. About 1.6 percentage of Blair County’s 123,842 population and 2.2 percentage of Cambria County’s 134,550 population are lacking that basic level of connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, 55.2 percentage of Fulton County’s 14,506 residents are without the service. ARC Funds Funding for the study comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The Task Force received $50,000 from ARC and the member counties contributed a matching $50,000 for the study. They began looking for a firm to help develop the study last fall and chose Design Nine hoping to determine:

  • Level of service being provided; the needs of local businesses and the reliability of the current services being provided;
  • An inventory of broadband assets already in place;
  • An assessment community broadband requirements for bandwidth needs;
  • Determine best technologies to meet the coal impacted community needs; and
  • Cost estimates for different deployment strategies
Businesses Want More in Westmoreland While the Regional Broadband Task Force is seeking data about connections consistent with the FCC's definition of "broadband,” business owners and operators in the area believe those speeds are outdated. At a recent kick-off meeting for stakeholders, economic development professionals attended and expressed the concerns of the business sector: James Smith, president of the Greensburg-based Economic Growth Connection, argued that the 25 mbps benchmark is outdated as a connectivity goal, especially for businesses. “I’ve got businesses telling me if they don’t have a (gigabit per second), it’s not sufficient,” he said. “This is a business necessity moving forward, just like electricity. If we don’t have the ability to offer that, we’re going to lose.” Smith cited connectivity issues at a business incubator in New Kensington. “They do very large video files,” he said. “They cannot move those files right now to the clients they need to move them to.” Discussion at the meeting included conversations about how lack of broadband is affecting local farms, loss of population, and possible local investment. Jack Maytum from Design Nine suggested that local communities should consider public investment to encourage broadband growth in their community. “[U]underground conduits, utility poles and communications towers — that can be leased to wireless or fiber-optic broadband service providers,” can help create a more favorable environment for future public or private broadband infrastructure investment. He argued that wireless service alone can’t satisfy the demand. “The radio spectrum is limited,” he noted, while, with fiber-optic cable, he said, “the information capacity is practically unlimited. Fiber is the backbone of the infrastructure.” Part of the Regional Comprehensive Plan The examination of connectivity in the region is part of a broader plan to spur growth in the region. The "Alleghenies Ahead Comprehensive Plan," completed in 2018, suggests that the region needs to make changes and improvements to reverse negative trends. With significant population aging and loss, the plan suggests investment in broadband as a way to attract jobs and new residents. Other recommendations include investments in housing, recreation and natural resources, agriculture, public health and safety, transportation, and taking a collaborative approach to accomplish regional goals. Read the full Comprehensive Plan [PDF] here.   Image credit Calzarette at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA] Tags: pennsylvaniaregionalfeasibilitysurveycollaborationruralfarmappalachians

Traverse City Handling Business of Broadband Branding

muninetworks.org - February 12, 2020

As the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project moves along in Traverse City, Michigan, utility board members are establishing the elements to set the service apart from other Internet access options in the community. The Record-Eagle reports that the board will decide in March on rates and that they've already chosen a name and logo. Brand Recognition The new service will be TCLP fiber and their tagline will be "Your Community Network." Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P) are banking on the connection to their municipal electric utility. TCL&P will receive help marketing the service from Fujitsu, the company hired by Traverse City to design and operate the network. Fujitsu Network Communications Marketing Lead Lori Butler said the name draws on the brand recognition the utility already has, while differentiating the new enterprise. The tagline “Your Community Network” emphasizes the public utility’s mission and the fact that it’s a community-owned network, she said. Butler said the proposed logo also draws on the familiar, adding the word “fiber” and the tagline to the existing network, plus a strand of fiber optic cable. She showed the board a few proposed color combinations, and they ultimately gravitated toward a blue and yellow design similar to the existing logo, with a darker blue added as an accent. Fujitsu also recommended rates, which will be approved by the utility board in March: Fujitsu...suggested [basic] rates from $59.99 per month for residential customers to $149.99 a month for commercial customers. Those rates would buy download and upload speeds of 200 megabits per second residential; one gigabit per second commercial. Scott Menhart, TCL&P chief information technology officer, said 200 megabits per second is twice as fast as what most area commercial providers offer in their base package, and they typically offer upload speeds of just 10 megabits per second. The higher upload speed will matter for customers as people put more and more devices online, Fujitsu Network Communications broadband operations head Robert Worden said. He cited a household average of 11 devices — and said that’s bound to rise, factoring in smartphones, security services with streaming doorbell cameras and smart TVs boasting ever-higher resolutions. “Does everybody need that every minute of every day? No, but are they going to enjoy it when they’ve got it? You bet, because it’s going to be on, it’s going to be available and it’s going to have all the capacity you need,” he said. Proposed broadband rates (symmetrical): Residential:

  • 200 Mbps: $59.99 per month
  • 500 Mbps: $69.99 per month
  • 1 Gbps: $89.99 per month
  • 500 Mbps: $99.99 per month
  • 1 Gbps: $149.99 per month
  • $14.99 per residential line
  • $24.99 per commercial line
TCL&P hopes to have the first subscribers connected and ready for service in May. Tags: traverse city mimichiganratesmarketing

North Carolina League of Municipalities Shares Business, Residential Stories from Rural Communities

muninetworks.org - February 12, 2020

Whether you're a tech entrepreneur, manage a large industrial operation, or you specialize as an artisan who sells niche products online, fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is now a critical utility for your business. A recent SpotLight article from the North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) and hosted by WRAL.com, shines a light on the impact of reliable broadband on rural businesses, residents, and local economies. Unrealized Potential NCLM provides multiple examples supporting the theory that lack of high-quality connectivity and access to digital tools results in unrealized potential — in jobs, home-based businesses, and small business revenue. A 2019 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests that 66 percent of rural small businesses struggle with poor Internet or mobile phone connectivity. Sheila Pope and her husband — both attorneys — have no Internet access at home and when their daughter returns home from college, she must make the trek into town to scope out a reliable connection. "The trend is for more and more online work. She [Pope's daughter] would have to come to our office or go to the coffee shop in town. We got unlimited data through our cell phone provider so that we could use our phones as a hotspot, but that's unreliable and sometimes the connection would go out and she would lose all her work. It's very problematic," Pope said. "People are not going to want to come here to live and businesses aren't going to come here when they can't get what they need to do business in this digital age."  NCLM spoke with Aaron Carter, director of marketing for Rhino Shelf, a storage shelving manufacturer. Only recently has the company been able to subscribe to Internet access faster than 20 Mbps: "Broadband is so important because no matter what your business is, efficiency is the bottom line. It doesn't matter if you have the greatest product in the world; if you're not manufacturing it efficiently, that's a loss. If you're not selling or marketing it efficiently, you're losing," Carter said. "I grew up in Sampson County. I have friends there who run businesses and the way they do business is old-fashioned because they don't have fast Internet." He continued, "There's an assumption that if someone's in a rural area that their ideas might not have a certain appeal or their products might not have a certain level of sophistication. That's completely not true. People with spectacular ideas who live in rural areas — it's worth it to our state to give those people a voice or an avenue to get their ideas out there." Ag Interest We wrote about Optima Bio in July 2019; the company is experimenting with pilot projects to convert hog waste into energy. In order to operate, the five farms where the pilot projects are located need access to broadband for remote monitoring. CEO Mark Maloney notes that, as innovation becomes more integrated into the agriculture industry, the need for rural broadband will continue to expand. "As Optima grows our projects and presence in eastern North Carolina, reliable, robust and affordable Internet access will continue to be a constraint and likely an increasing one as we require more bandwidth," Maloney said. "As for other ag business, I know some large players have to find special solutions." Set Them Free Mayor Bob Scott from the mountain community of Franklin describes how residents complain about poor Internet access speeds. He's convinced that broadband in Franklin would help attract more people to the town. As local communities in North Carolina have known for years, large monopoly ISPs aren’t willing to make investments in rural areas to bring connectivity up to speed. NCLM points out that the surest way forward will be to change state law that bars local communities from investing in infrastructure that allows public-private partnerships.  That reality is why local, state and business leaders have increasingly called for policy solutions that would bring to the table resources of not only private providers, but also nonprofits and local governments. But even with that recognition and state legislators agreeing in 2019 to free up electric cooperatives to bring their resources to bear, legal hurdles remain for local governments. "We have to allow legislation that will allow municipalities to enter into partnerships," [Mayor] Scott said. "I think the legislature needs to give towns more local rule to deal with the Internet and the lack of Internet services." Read the full article here and check out this short marketing video from NCLM: Tags: north carolinanorth carolina league of municipalitiessmall businessrural

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 394

muninetworks.org - February 12, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 394 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Chris Schweitzer from Auburn Essential Service (AES) about their innovative approach to expanding fiber optic network. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Chris Schweitzer: For us, given our smaller footprint, where we're postured, how we're planning to do our build, which is steady, just trying to really be intentional about it and look back in 20 years and have built several hundred miles of lines that have served several thousand more customers, that we didn't think was maybe possible in 2020. Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 394 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Auburn Essential Services in Indiana has been offering fiber for connectivity for around 15 years now. On today's podcast, general manager Chris Schweitzer talks with Christopher about the network and the way the utility's steady approach has paid off over the years. The guys discuss Auburn Essential Services refresh in order to replace the original infrastructure and the new innovations they've integrated as part of their new offerings. They also talk about the utility's transparent pricing and efforts to keep account straightforward, a subscriber preference. We also learn about the utility's exciting new partnership with nearby Garrett, Indiana, where Auburn Essential Services is working with the town's electric utility to provide broadband. Now, here's Christopher talking with Chris Schweitzer from Indiana's Auburn Essential Services. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcasts. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Well, office is in Minneapolis, but Saint Paul is where I live and it's where I love to be. So local rivalry across the river. But today, more importantly, I'm speaking with Chris Schweitzer, the general manager of Auburn Essential Services in Indiana. Welcome back to the show, Chris. Chris Schweitzer: Thanks Chris. Glad to be here. Christopher Mitchell: We talked a long time ago when you described what Auburn had done. That is still one of my favorite models, a rather low risk, very impressive incremental effort to getting to city wide. And now as we'll talk today beyond the city, fiber optic, Internet access through the city utility. But let me start off by just asking you to remind people, what's Auburn like? 2:13 Chris Schweitzer: Yeah. Auburn's a really cool town. Been around since 1900, classic car capital of the world, is what we're known for with our classic car museums and where they used to build those Duesenbergs and Cords and Auburns. And we've got a municipal electric utility and AES was grown out of that about 15 years ago. We were celebrating our 15th year of this year. And it's got a lot of great industry and business and a lot of great doers. And it's a community that's forward thinking and investing in downtown and it's a great place to live and to raise a family. And so broadband utility now has been growing and we bend to every passing that we can here in town and we've been partnering with surrounding communities and we're looking to grow beyond our borders as well. Christopher Mitchell: So let's start off by going back 15 years quickly, in part because I was just recently reading about the retirement of mayor Yoder who retired at the end of 2019, served the city for 20 years. And he looked back and he considered that the municipal broadband network that you've run for so long, that that was one of the key achievements of that term of service. And so I'm curious, have you felt that it's that important to the community as you're working on it? Chris Schweitzer: Well, yeah. I mean mayor Yoder was a great supporter, an advocate for Auburn Essential Services. He was here and got help to get that thing off the ground. And I do, I echo that. I think AES has become a very important asset to business and to homeowners, improving competitiveness and improving reliability and relying on business communication services, Internet voice, point to point services here for healthcare and finance and all kinds of the different businesses we have here in town. And the quality of life at home, in terms of lots of folks working from home and home based businesses. And I think our brand is, it's really cool to hear from customers that just talk about hands down AES is the service provider to pick. People have choice in the community and thankfully feels like we're number one, so it's a good thing to serve a great customer base and the growth just continues to be there even though we've finished our build several years ago. So yeah, I think it's an important asset for sure. 4:33 Christopher Mitchell: I think it's worth noting that when Cooper Tire at the time, major employer came to mayor Yoder and said, "We need the city to do something, broadband." He said, "I'd really like the private sector to solve it.' And strongly encouraged the existing providers to step up. They didn't. And when the city looked to then reluctantly fill that gap, the state legislature considered doing what several states had done, which was to say the city wouldn't be able to do that. But mayor Yoder, a Republican, according to an article that I recently read, worked with a group of Democrats in this state, for with a bipartisan coalition to make sure that cities would be able to make these kinds of investments if they so chose. And so I just feel like in this time of where it feels like we're so polarized, it's worth looking back on that. And I suspect that today, at the local level, you probably work with Democrats and Republicans and would be able to form a coalition like that because at the local level we still do that sort of a thing. Chris Schweitzer: Yeah, absolutely. There's wide support for broadband in the community. And in this line of business, as a service provider, we get to see the entire cross section of the community, businesses, industry, investors, homeowners, renters, healthcare, all the different disciplines and broadband is a common thread through all of that. And we're thankful to be part of that. And really we get to serve and solve problems with those folks looking to stay here and they need to have all kinds of ingredients to be able to stay and grow and thrive here in Auburn. And broadband is one of them and we're thankful to be able to help with that. Christopher Mitchell: So I have not spoken with someone like you about the older parts of the network, parts of your network are younger, but as we were talking a little bit before the interview started, parts of it are 15 years old and you're refreshing it. And so I think people would be interested to get a sense of what that means. 6:29 Chris Schweitzer: It's an exciting thing and it's a challenging thing. When you've got thousands of customers out there on a network that's well understood and known to be reliable, we've been pouring investment. We started off with our core network. We've got a modern service provider architecture scalable now. And we bring the heart of the Internet from Chicago out West and Columbus out East, right to little old Auburn. So we're milliseconds away from global networks, which is really great. And so that part we've done just a year or two ago, so we're poised for growth there. And then we started here recently on the migration of all several thousand of our customers from an older chipset fiber to the home platform that was all gig capable and it's been providing gigabit services throughout the community for 15 years, but it's aged and it's not well supported anymore, so we're moving to a Calix AXOS based platform. Chris Schweitzer: And so we're about a third of the way through. We've probably got another six to eight months there and that's empowering us to do a lot of cool things in the home and in the business as well. But that transaction is a long one, we're managing customer expectations growing while we're trying to change out the old. So it's a workload that's an interesting thing. We've got great staff, great attitudes. They see the vision for what the end game is and they're trying to maintain service excellence while we update and modernize the network. Christopher Mitchell: What are some of the new services you can provide on the new platform? Chris Schweitzer: Really empowered by Calix. Calix is an interesting company and what they're doing is helping operators like us, focus on the local customer service aspect of what we do. So we can focus on customer service, reliability, performance and innovating and using the products, but not necessarily having to be an innovator of products. But really we can be an innovator of deploying those products and how we commoditize them and put them together in a alert service solution set. 8:26 Chris Schweitzer: So we've always been an access provider, access provider up to the edge. There was a D mark, clarity mark at the home and the business and what Calix is doing with managed wifi and smart home technologies and a lot of service applications in the home and in the business, is empowering us to erase that or that D mark is washing away because really it's not just access, it's access and everything access affords the customer. So we feel our customers feel that having a service provider that they know is local, tenable that we can reach out and touch one another because we're local, we come to know our customers. We're great listeners to our customers, which is probably the most important thing that we do. And then we can provide a portfolio from small access to multi service integrator and everything in between based on what we hear customers need. And so those technologies are, we manage wifi, smart home, security, same in the business. So that's really the enabler for the next generation. Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's step back for a second. And when you mentioned the D mark, I mean it's interesting to me that you're enthusiastic about getting rid of the D mark, but I want to make sure that I'm properly understanding what that is. And so back prior to this platform effectively, the D mark was where you were responsible on up to the side of the home and into the router. But then beyond that, whatever worked or didn't work, that was on the user, as long as you were providing the service to the router that needed to get there. And now basically you're saying with this new platform that not only are you able to do more, but you are planning on doing more in the space that previously was basically left just to the customer, the end user. 10:26 Chris Schweitzer: Yes, sir. And it is a challenging thing. I think we were naturally being called to do it. People would call in and customers, many customers don't really know what the D mark is or what their responsibility is, even though we understand what it is. Christopher Mitchell: Right, we all have parents or friends and anyone who's listening to this show is probably providing tech service to family members. Chris Schweitzer: Exactly. And so as a local provider, obviously we desire to help our customer. If we're helping them be successful, they're desiring to grow with us and stay with us and we're just trying to do the right thing there. But regardless of whether we're able to offer the service, we're trying to help them. But the cool part about this platform is that now we can again, listen to the customer and if they're having challenges, we can afford them a service now, we can offer them a service that we couldn't before. Chris Schweitzer: So the cool part is we're not a one size fits all, based on what the customer needs we can deploy. However, what it also gives our customer service reps, quite frankly, is an ability to more clearly identify what is our responsibility. And then if they want our help beyond the D mark, we now can offer services that really empower us to do a good job there. So it's actually an enabling thing. You were absolutely right, Chris, we couldn't go into that space without these new technologies and new ecosystems that let us do it well. But now that we have a deployable solution, we can listen to the customer and deploy what they need and then we can support them well in that. So it's actually a welcomed thing, which honestly you asked me that a year ago, I don't think I would have believed you. Christopher Mitchell: Right. The managed wifi we've talked about in the past and that's something that is responsible for a lot of service calls. And so the fact that a person working in your network operations center can resolve a lot of those issues remotely is a big deal that I think we've covered pretty well in other interviews that we've done. But we haven't talked much about network security and you mentioned that and what sort of things are you going to be able to do there? 12:20 Chris Schweitzer: So this is a relatively new offering from Calix. If you pay attention to their marketing and where their productization is that, it's something that's literally coming out this year. So they've got a couple of layers that they're affording on their managed wireless platform, they're going to be offering some deployable components and parental controls and quality services one and then network security. So having the ability to filter and watch for malware and things at the network edge, is an important strategic option for customers. And so they can, instead of them taking that burden on and being at risk, they can for a few bucks be able to ask us to enable some services and then we can help them at the network edge with security. So we don't have that in play yet, but we follow Calix and we're excited about that option. So everything we've been doing is posturing ourselves to be able to adopt and deploy the new, the wholesale service offerings that they have. Christopher Mitchell: It seems like the marketplace may be noticing these enhanced services or at the very least, your commitment to serving the customer. Because it strikes me you've never been one to engage in the price war. You haven't been someone that is just going to slash your prices to try and gain market share. And so you've had, what I would call, steady growth, that, as I understand it, is actually as rapid now as it has ever been. Chris Schweitzer: Yeah. You're exactly right. Other than service level agreements with specialized custom solutions for the enterprise customer, we've never had contracts or like you said, introductory gimmicky pricing or any, if you will, games. I remember our first focus groups with local residents and businesses and they asked for a couple of simple things and one of them, just an everyday fair price and treat me good and have a reliable service. So we've honestly tried to absolutely do that every day. 14:21 Chris Schweitzer: So not having any special prices, it's a very clear and well understood thing with customers. Our marketing is simple. Our customer care teams get to understand the product more easily. It's easier to talk about because we're not tripping over small print and a bunch of other stuff and we're incentivized everyday because there isn't a contract. It doesn't happen very often, but if someone doesn't stay for a normal duration and we don't recover our capital outlay and they want to come back, and that happens, that we do make them sign a two year contract then. So we're just protecting the rate payers and the system owners and it's cool that way. But yeah, it's a good thing Christopher Mitchell: It looks to me like you have half the businesses in town and roughly half the residents it sounds like. Chris Schweitzer: Yeah, you're right. So that growth has been, it's not been spiky, it's been very constant. And even though we've finished building our last local convergence cabinet years ago, we had actually our largest growth year last year actually. So it's been a wonderfully steady rate of growth and we are fortunate to serve northbound of 50% in these areas. And we've exceeded, if you asked our business consultant, we've exceeded where we thought we'd land, by I guess, nearly almost a thousand subscribers now. So it's a good thing. It's really comforting to know that we've built it based on quality and service reliability and that'll go a long way. Christopher Mitchell: Talking more about outside of city limits, you are mostly debt free or entirely debt free, how is that situation treating you? Chris Schweitzer: Yeah. So we do carry a little bit of debt, but we've got cash reserves that more than pays that off. So just for agility and the ability to make investment, because we knew this day was coming, where we just upgraded our core network and we've got well over a million dollars of distribution technology to deploy. We're also modernizing our TV platform, it's still a pay TV model, but it's going on a streaming model. So we're having to overhaul the core, the distribution, deploy new technologies on that distribution network, but then also reinvest and redeploy our pay TV program. So that happens by way of, like you said, building some cash reserves so we can go ahead and make that reinvestment as needed. We carry some debt, but we're virtually debt free. We can pay that off. 16:52 Christopher Mitchell: And that's just remarkable. I mean, you're 15 years in, at the same time, you had one customer 15 years ago. And so you've done a remarkable amount of building without accumulating debt. And I feel like that's a discussion we have to go in much deeper in the future. Perhaps if we're together at an event, I'll just query you just on that. But I do want to talk about what you're doing in Garrett and in other areas. So Garrett's a nearby town in which businesses and people have been pestering you to expand and you've been working with the utility there. But tell us the story of what you're doing in Garrett. Chris Schweitzer: Garrett's really cool, they're a municipal electric, much like Auburn electric. We know those guys really well. Their line crews and their superintendent, they're good, good folks and share like values I think, in serving the customer and taking care of the community. And about five years ago, like we said, they saw what we're doing and they have like desires for their constituency and their rate payers in providing an option for reliable and cost effective Internet and services. And so they'd made the decision to first deploy to business districts, which is again, I guess what we did as well 15 years ago. They've had success there and they're ready to make the next step with residential. 18:18 Chris Schweitzer: They're focusing on the passive optical network, the infrastructure, and then we've got a really cool partnership arrangement where we're going to help them light that up. We'll own the customer experience, which I think really for us communicates that they trust us with that and we're privileged to have their trust in that and glad to work with them on a daily and weekly basis to deliver something that they're not currently getting in their community. So it's a really cool story. It's a feel good story as well, but more importantly I think it has some impact for their community, like it has an Auburn. Christopher Mitchell: Well, and I think one of the benefits that we see in some other places where this is happening, is that Garrett then is able to have this high quality option that you're providing without having to take on significant risks, without having to negotiate channel contracts or worry about changes in the technologies in the near future. Don't have to build a head end. It really makes a lot of sense for a first mover like you to work with nearby local governments in order to make this happen, rather than having someone reinvent the wheel. Chris Schweitzer: I totally agree. As you're talking about that the things that come to mind is, you're right. I mean, Auburn is a small community. We're 13,000 people. We're 7,700 meters. So we're a small operator and so it's probably harder for a community much smaller than that, to do broadband really successfully. It'd be interesting to look at the different scales of models, but even when you look at municipals, they're generally a lot bigger than Auburn. So what's cool about DeKalb County, is in Auburn, is the communities that are in DeKalb County are small towns, but they're forward thinkers and they're great places to live. So having this amenity and this key piece of infrastructure, is cool. 20:10 Chris Schweitzer: I think what's really neat for them is the partnership in the sense that they're the ones investing in the fiber optics. They're leveraging that fiber investment for traditional core business, communication between substations for relay protection and control. They're going to be using it for AMI metering, but at the same time they're leveraging that infrastructure investment for the benefit of their rate payers, with additional services, like Internet, et cetera. And in fact you're exactly right because Auburn Essential Services, we're taking on the risk of building the head end. We're going to build another small hut over there. So we're building, we're taking on the risks of scaling it out to them. And so they've got the longer range return with their passive optical network and we've got the shorter range risk that we're taking on by adding the technologies that have to be refreshed every five to eight years. They're putting investment in the ground like they're used to, which is conductor in the air and pipe in the ground. It's got long asset depreciation timeline. So it's, I think a cool afforded opportunity that we're both taking advantage of to help our communities. Christopher Mitchell: Do you ever have any political challenges within Auburn from people who are saying, "Why are you wasting your time outside city limits? What matters is focusing on Auburn." Chris Schweitzer: That's an interesting topic. We haven't done a great deal of expansion beyond. But as I say that, you're right, we've partnered in Garrett, we've built some networks beyond, I think we are looking at it as building Auburn's impact for our community. And it certainly is Auburn, the Auburn constituents, but it's also the Auburn electric rate payers, which go beyond Auburn by rights, by nature because of our territory. And I think our board of works and council who support and fund and look at the financial side of this, sees that if AES can grow its footprint in ways that serve our local economy, which is beyond Auburn, that's a win situation. I'm not aware of any political issue that's came up because of that. The folks that we interact with, if you talk to the mayor, if you talk to the council, AES is a widely accepted utility asset, that we're thankful is here. I'm not aware of anything anyway. 22:36 Christopher Mitchell: Well I'm glad to hear that. I mean I think that makes sense because one of the things that I'm sure happens is that for every paying customer you get in Garrett or one of the other areas, they're paying some of the fixed costs of service that customers in Auburn otherwise would have to pay. Chris Schweitzer: That's absolutely right. And I think we want to scale the network and scale the business in ways that maximize the utility of it. And so that means the experience reliability, the finance of it of course, so we can continue to reinvest and modernize. And we do talk about scale, we've got customers on the edge of the County by way of, we don't do a lot of fixed wireless, but when customers ask, we don't want to turn them down necessarily if we can provide a good working solution. And so we asked the question, where do we want to grow to? And so that's a conversation we're having at all kinds of levels. We want to make the right decision for our folks. And we do believe that it's within the County. I don't think we have any desire to grow outside of our county's footprint. Christopher Mitchell: You're not going to seek grants to work in Michigan? Chris Schweitzer: Probably not in Michigan, probably not that far North. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, no, I was just pushing it a little bit. But yeah, I did want to ask you about grants though. What grants are you seeking to expand to some of these folks that don't have a lot of options today? Chris Schweitzer: The state of Indiana has got the next level connection grants and so they had their first round and then they're going through a second round and the second round is still what they're calling unserved. So if you look at the definition of that, I believe it's folks that do not have an option for broadband, which is in their definition of what they're saying is don't have an option for a 10 megabit down, one megabit up. And so when you look at the mapping that the state's provided, it shows much of our areas underserved but not unserved. And so I'll tell you and as we talk about growing outside of the area, we have been approached unsolicitedly by several folks, a business here, several residential here, where they have came and said, "Look, we, we do not have other options. Some of your options aren't acceptable for any number of reasons, either service and reliability or cost or whatever. And we don't have any other options." 24:52 Chris Schweitzer: And so they have actually been putting down in aid to construction dollars to help say, "Hey, we're serious. We want to have skin in this game, please make us a priority." And so when you've got that grassroots skin in the game effort, now we've got an anchor tenant that really can help things get started. And so we've got several examples and it's really blossomed up here in the last year. We have done some extensions, Chris, beyond our network, to the airport, to a private school, to another subdivision. But these recent ones have came at under increasing pressure and some of them are very rural. We've got seven passings in a mile, for example. Chris Schweitzer: And so what happens is we got to do the math and say, "Okay, here's what it takes to build that. We can't take the risk unless there's this amount of in aid construction." And so we're starting to see folks that have been making that investment to be a catalyst. And I'll tell you, that's one of the things, that's telling us, I think, that they are dramatically underserved and there's a need there. And so we're going after the grant and one of the things we're doing is really working on a survey to help us gather the right statistically important data, to help tell the story that while the map says they're underserved, really they're unserved. And so we're excited because I'm hoping that we can, even if we gather a little bit of seed money, a little bit of investment incentive to grow the network, it really gets us to a place where we can grow then further. So it's a step at a time, but we're hopeful that we can do well with the grant. 26:35 Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I wish you luck with that because we're seeing similar things around the country and increasingly state legislatures are understanding that there is no authoritative data service that shows who has service and who doesn't. And I think if a year from today, the FCC finally solved this problem, that would be faster than I think most people think. I mean, I think the FCC is finally going in the right direction. The question is just how long it's going to be until that data is then made available once they finally start collecting it. Chris Schweitzer: We're excited about the ability. You hear a lot about wireless, I think there's a great portfolio of options that make sense in various situations. And for us, given our smaller footprint and where we're postured and how we're planning to do our build, which is steady, slow is smooth, smooth is fast, just trying to really be intentional about it and look back in 20 years and have built several hundred miles of lines that has served several thousand more customers that we didn't think was maybe possible in 2020. Christopher Mitchell: I like that philosophy. I've been saying it for a while, but I say it out of conjecture, you say it out of experience. Chris Schweitzer: It's cool. Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you so much for coming on and giving us the update of where Auburn's at. It's just wonderful to hear it and very hopeful for DeKalb County and hopefully nearby regions will take some inspiration from it too. Chris Schweitzer: Chris, thanks so much for the invitation. Always glad to talk with you and thanks for the opportunity. 27:59 Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Chris Schweitzer from Auburn Essential Services in Indiana. Read more stories about AES at muninetworks.org. 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 any way you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter @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 Husbey for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 394 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks so much for listening. Tags: transcript

Auburn Essential Services Steady as It Grows - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 394

muninetworks.org - February 11, 2020

Auburn Essential Service (AES) is one of those networks that has been serving the community for years with a steady presence and a strong commitment to the community. This week, Christopher talks with AES General Manager Chris Schweitzer about their fiber optic network, how they're innovating, and their recipe for consistent growth. AES began with fiber infrastructure for their electric utility. They entered the broadband business first for municipal facilities, and later for businesses when the incumbent providers couldn't deliver necessary connectivity to one of the city's prominent employers. The company was ready to relocate until AES stepped in. Rather than face the economic impact of substantial job losses, AES connected the company and never looked back. That was in the early 2000s and now AES offers Internet access to large segments of residents and businesses. Christopher and his guest talk about the way AES has taken a deliberate approach to expanding the network citywide and how they're implementing new technologies as they refresh the infrastructure. They discuss the network’s financial health (hint: it’s doing great) and how AES seeks grant funding to aid in further expansion. Chris describes the new partnership that AES and nearby Garrett, Indiana, have developed to bring fiber broadband to the residents in the small community of about 6,300 people. The utility has a philosophy that other munis also embrace — straightforward pricing and customer-centered services — that have helped drive their success in the residential market. Check out our first interview with Chris back in 2013, when he joined us for episode 77. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 29 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  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 bitsauburnindianaFTTHmuniinnovationpartnershipincremental

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits NC Bonus Episode 5

muninetworks.org - February 11, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 5 of the Why NC Broadband Matters series on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Susan Cashion and Greg Coltrain about how cooperatives have been bringing high-quality Internet access to people living in rural communities. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Susan Cashion: We have got 144 strands. We're not going to need all those strands of fiber. And so we've got this asset sitting there and when you couple it with the seven cooperative principles, you realize you've got something that you can use, you can leverage it to improve the communities you serve. Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to our fifth episode of 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. NC Broadband Matters is a North Carolina non-profit. 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 the 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're collaborating with NC Broadband Matters to present this series that touches on issues that affect folks in North Carolina, but also impact people in other states. Lisa Gonzalez: This episode is titled How Cooperatives are Changing North Carolina's Broadband Future. We have two guests, Susan Cashion from Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, and Greg Coltrain, who's representing RiverStreet Networks from Wilkes Telephone Cooperative. They sat down to talk while in North Carolina at an event in Raleigh. Wilkes, through RiverStreet, is expanding broadband connectivity all across the state of North Carolina. One of the ways they're accomplishing their goal is by partnering with electric cooperatives like Piedmont. In this conversation we learn more about both entities, the partnership to bring better connectivity to people in Piedmont's service territory and more about the Wilkes RiverStreet plan to connect rural areas in North Carolina to high quality internet access. Now here's Christopher with Greg Coltrain and Susan Cashion. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, North Carolina's special episode edition. And I'm actually coming to you from North Carolina and I'm not going to say live edition because my colleague Katie has pointed out to me, they are all live in the sense that I'm recording them live and then we are re rebroadcasting them. So it is ridiculous for me when I'm in person with someone to say live. So Katie, you win, I got it, I remembered. Today I'm really excited to be talking to Greg Coltrain, the Vice President of Business Development. Welcome back to the show, Greg. Greg Coltrain: Hey, Chris. Good to be here. 2:41 Christopher Mitchell: So RiverStreet Networks... I think I forgot to include that part of your title as RiverStreet Networks, which is the for-profit subsidiary of the legendary Wilkes Telephone Co-op, which we've talked about many times in the past. That's who you're with. Give us a very quick reminder of what RiverStreet is? Greg Coltrain: Well, Wilkes is a co-op, it's on the Western part of North Carolina in the mountains, partly what we consider to be the gateway to the mountains. We were formed in 1951, and so we've got about 69 years of operations as a co-op. 2015, we formed RiverStreet Networks. Really it was supposed to be or was designed to be a device to let us take what we've learned and experienced and the skill sets that we have and carry that to other rural areas that are unserved or underserved. We have about 137 employees today. We've been ramping up and gearing up for growth expansion that would be regional in different areas that we've either acquired companies or we've merged with companies. We've been using these growth mechanisms to just kind of grow contiguously across the state. So it really kind of philanthropic, but it is a for-profit company. And so we're charging into the unknown territories to see what we can do. Christopher Mitchell: Now, when you say for-profit, that's the intention with the amount of investment you're doing. I can't imagine there's a lot of profits on the near horizon. Greg Coltrain: Well, we say for-profit because we have to delineate between the co-op being a nonprofit in this other area, but since we are using principles we learned through our co-op in that we take the monies that we earn and we invest them right back into contiguous areas that need service. So really it isn't for-profit, but it uses the same principles as the co-op. Christopher Mitchell: Great. And technically all the profits then go to the co-op. Greg Coltrain: Correct. 04:34 Christopher Mitchell: Anyway, I don't want to spend a whole time talking about that. That's not the interesting stuff. What's interesting is your vision for all of North Carolina and increasingly parts of Virginia that we'll be talking about, we're very lucky. We're here at this event that's organized in Raleigh. So we're here at the invest in broadband event at McKimmon Center at NC state, North Carolina state where the Wolfpack resides. And we pulled in Susan Cashion, the Vice President and the Chief Compliance and Administrative Officer at Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, which is an electric co-op, right very near the RiverStreet Networks area. And you are working with the RiverStreet Networks folks on a partnership. Just briefly tell us a little bit about the electric co-op. Susan Cashion: Well, hello Chris and Greg. Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, we are located in Orange County, Person County, Alamance County, Durham County, as well as Caswell and Granville County in the rural areas. So we're headquartered in Hillsborough, North Carolina and we are one of 26 electric cooperatives in the state of North Carolina. We were formed... I'll give a little story. Christopher Mitchell: Please. Susan Cashion: We were actually incorporated in 1938. So, it took a little bit more than 80 years that Piedmont Electric has been in business and we were formed because the investor on utility companies, they could not make a profitable return on their investment to go to the rural communities. And so we were formed in 1938 and we are continuing to grow. We serve approximately 32,000 meters in the six counties that I had mentioned earlier. Christopher Mitchell: Susan, you are serving all of these electric meters. How did you decide to get involved with broadband in any way? 06:27 Susan Cashion: Chris, I'm sure you are aware. We are owned by our members being a cooperative and we listen to our members. That is one of the benefits of actually getting your service, electricity or telephone, by your members because it is a business organization where your members are basically your shareholders. Frequently we engage with forums with our members. We have multiple ways that they can get their concerns to us, and one of the concerns was the lack of broadband. And so we knew that our key core expertise is in electricity. It was not in providing broadband. And so we decided, along with our board of directors, we needed to help our communities. And we started talking to people and trying to figure out, "How can we leverage our existing assets to help bridge this gap we know is a critical need in the rural parts of North Carolina?" And so we were very fortunate to run across Wilkes Communications and the RiverStreet Networks group as well as our statewide organization. They saw the importance for all of North Carolina, for all the co-ops that reside there to maybe explore some pilot programs. Christopher Mitchell: How does the pilot project you're working on with RiverStreet Networks work? Susan Cashion: We have just launched, and when I say just launched, December 1st was the launch date of the pilot program and we are sending out communications to our members. We communicate to them frequently, monthly, weekly, daily, but we did a cover wrap to our Carolina Country, our statewide magazine. We did a cover wrap announcing the pilot program and we've got a joined up build piedmont.com CrowdFiber website, which was pulled together by RiverStreet Networks for us, and we are gauging interest from our members where they see that they need faster internet service or where they are just completely underserved at all. And on this CrowdFiber site, they can do a speed test as well. All of that information is pulled in through this website and RiverStreet Networks can start analyzing the data and seeing where the interest is and then we can proceed from there. 09:02 Susan Cashion: The main objective for Piedmont is that we chose RiverStreet because we want to make sure that our partner with this is sustainable. We know how important it is to have a company that has been in business for so long to stay there. Christopher Mitchell: Although not quite as long as you. Susan Cashion: Well, that is true. [crosstalk 00:09:21]. We've got a couple of decades on them. Christopher Mitchell: Only since 1951. Susan Cashion: And 1938. We are the elder here, aren't we? Christopher Mitchell: And so Greg, you're working with a lot of different folks and we're going to talk more about that in a few minutes. Different types of organizations. Is it different working with an electric cooperative and electric membership corporation? Greg Coltrain: I would say that it's comforting because they have a lot of the same mentalities as we do on in focusing on serving that member. It's a member-driven focus. We've also made a lot of the same decisions over the years and our co-op of Wilkes Telephone Membership Corporation is governed by board of directors. The EMCs are governed by our board of directors. We're comfortable talking openly with board members about decisions and making those tough decisions. And so that helps a lot. Those are some of the common ground areas, I think we have. I don't know. There's just this warm and fuzzy feeling because we're focused not so much on the money, which is obviously important. You got to be able to make a business case, but it's you start at the end to get to the beginning. And the end meaning getting to that member and making sure that they get the quality service they need and what's that timeframe, and how do you make that happen, and how do you pull together the funding? What networks are there and what partners can you find? Is the county your partner to come along and help you with the EMC mission and the TMC mission and the for-profit mission? It's just multiple aspects all coming together. We've really liked that engagement. Christopher Mitchell: It's all right. Coming back to you, Susan, I'm curious now. I feel like you're learning the interest of your members. Has there been any surprises and also are you definitely going to be moving forward with some kind of investment as part of this or is this still testing the waters? Susan Cashion: Chris, that is a great question and it kind of helps explain why we're doing what we're doing. Technology has just immensely changed our lives and at Piedmont Electric we have what they call advanced meters, smart meters, and even that technology continues to evolve. So at all of our substations, our offices, any towers that we have, we are running fiber to all of those assets. That fiber is going to help us provide quicker, faster information back to our cooperative, which is in turn going to improve the service that we give to our members. We're actually in the end of the project. We're in phase three and it was a three-phase project and we hope to be ending that I believe in the second quarter of this year. 12:10 Susan Cashion: We have got 144 strands. We're not going to need all those strands of fiber. And so we've got this asset sitting there and when you couple it with the seven cooperative principles, you realize you've got something that you can use, you can leverage it to improve the communities you serve. The fiber ring that we are putting together, that is going to serve as the backbone for RiverStreet. We do hope that this pilot program is going to be successful. What we have seen to date, and we're only talking about what? Five weeks that we've launched this. There has been an extreme amount of interest, so we know that the need is there and we just hope that business case is going to be coupled with of course the reconnect funds in some county, grants and the state grants that we've got. We hope that that's going to justify doing the engineering studies and moving forward. Susan Cashion: We also feel at Piedmont Electric that the wireless is a wonderful first step. And what attracted us to RiverStreet was that they had the experience in actually doing Fiber-to-the-Home and we hope that ultimately the wireless program that we launch, that it ultimately can turn into Fiber-to-the-Home because we only see that our needs for technology continue to grow. We want our houses to be smart houses. We're going to be doing things that we cannot even imagine and we're going to need that internet strength. Christopher Mitchell: One of the reasons I really like the co-ops being involved in this both telephone and electric is because of that member-driven attitude because I fear for a profit-driven company, particularly a profit maximizing company in the short term, which I would differentiate between the two, they are going to put in wireless and they may just not have a vision of getting to fiber. When co-ops are starting with wireless, I believe they're going to be looking for every opportunity if the wireless is not sufficient in time to do get that fiber out there. So, I very much share that vision. But let me ask you, have you heard anything surprising or is there a specific story of one of your members that sticks in your head that's particularly powerful? 14:34 Susan Cashion: I believe we've all heard the story about having to go to a fast food restaurant with your child in the back of a car so that they can actually do their homework. That is something that is dear to me because we have got members who do not have the luxury to get home in time while their children are still awake to take them to that fast food restaurant so that they can actually get on the internet. We have to be thinking about not only the education of our children but the telemedicine for our seniors, and I am quickly approaching, I all ready have my AARP membership. Christopher Mitchell: Oh, you fooled me. Susan Cashion: Well, thank you. But you have to realize we've got the technology there and if we do not look at where people can work from home, where they actually can start a business, we are not treating the folks that live in the rural communities fairly. We have got to make sure that all of North Carolina has got the same level playing field and I think that's what the co-ops are. We were formed in the rural areas that didn't have electricity or that didn't have telephone service. And now we've got this wonderful opportunity to really show the value of the cooperative business model. So I'm just very pleased to be in this relationship, partnership, however you want to say it with RiverStreet networks, and we just hope that the interest will definitely support us moving forward with this pilot program. And we hope that it will also serve as the perfect model for some of the other cooperatives in our state. Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much for coming on, Susan. I appreciate you stepping in at the last second. 16:24 Susan Cashion: Well, thank you, Chris. It has been wonderful sharing our story and maybe next year we'll get on a podcast and we can talk about some success stories going forward. Christopher Mitchell: Yes, absolutely. Susan Cashion: Thank you, Chris. And it's always a pleasure, Greg. Christopher Mitchell: Greg, it was really great to hear from Susan, one of the many partners you have across North Carolina and Virginia. Now, I'm going to throw this to you a little bluntly. It looks like you've been on an acquisition spree. You have partners and then you've also been buying up a lot of folks. I'm just curious, what is the overall strategy that RiverStreet has moving forward? Greg Coltrain: Well, it's kind of twofold in that a lot of our acquisitions have been wireless. We've been doing wireless service in parts of our network for 10 or 12 years, but not at the magnitude that we're talking about wanting to be prepared for in the coming years. And so those acquisitions have been just to get those resources in-house to get people who have the knowledge and the know withal, but also most of these wireless companies are contiguous to our regional build-out expansion. And so that's one reason. The other reason for the acquisitions is just sheerly to get our numbers up and get the cash flowing in so that we can manage the growth that we want to do down the road. Christopher Mitchell: Now, one of the things that you just said in your presentation was that... You may even have said it's the most important thing, managing relationships. I know that you're customer focused. When we're talking about relationships we're talking about other counties, other electric cooperatives that may be potential partners. Just tell me a little bit more about what you mean by managing relationships. 18:07 Greg Coltrain: As a human being, if I'm really passionate about something, I'm going to strive and work harder to make it happen and we have become very passionate at RiverStreet in what we're doing. Our main mission and goal is to message to stakeholders our passion and help them make it their passion. Greg Coltrain: The stakeholders that we've engaged have been strategically located near some property that we all ready have and if we help them understand what we know, they can be a great partner. If we're extremely transparent with them about what we're doing, if we engage them for their feedback and their concerns, it makes the partnership work a lot better because everybody trusts everybody. Christopher Mitchell: Now as a part of that, there's also I think managing expectations. As we roll into this, if I remember correctly, you have on the order of 31,000 broadband customers, is that right? Greg Coltrain: We will by the end of this year. Christopher Mitchell: You will by the end of this year. I mean, that's depending on who you talk to, it's a lot or a little. Greg Coltrain: Right, right, right. Christopher Mitchell: And it's a little in the sense that you're taking on a lot of territory and it's going to take you a long time to build out and you're talking about CAF requirements, the Connect America Fund has a five-year commitment. I don't know what the reconnect is. You have to juggle all these different timelines. How are you managing expectations for people who want broadband yesterday? Greg Coltrain: It is a challenge. I mean, we're trying to be transparent in the process. We know that wireless is a bridge. The gap to get broadband is something we can deploy quicker. We know about how long it takes to put a tower in and how to install that equipment and the timeframe it takes to actually deploy. So we're pretty candid about wireless is something that we could bring online within a year. In some areas, depending on if you all ready have infrastructure in place, you can bring that wireless service up within maybe a couple months. 19:59 Greg Coltrain: Fiber on the other hand requires construction. And so when we sit down to talk with our partners about how to message to their customers or if these are new customers and this partner is a county or whatever, we try to help them understand that you have to engineer it, you have to figure out where you're going to get the funds from, and then you have to start the deployment process. That can take three to five years from the time you start until you actually start serving the customer and getting the customer a viable broadband solution. So I think the biggest thing we're doing is we're being very blunt and straight forward with our partners in helping them understand that. Christopher Mitchell: What is the message? Is it that every part of North Carolina will have high quality broadband when you're done? Greg Coltrain: Ultimately that's our goal- Christopher Mitchell: I just want to get it on the record because I felt like I was that assumption and I don't know if listeners understand that. People sometimes think, "Oh, maybe my area just won't get high quality internet access." Greg Coltrain: Right. Part of what we hope we're doing is through our conversations, through participating in podcasts like this, speaking at events. I mean, there's a lot of opportunity and obviously RiverStreet can't do it all. We've been real transparent with competitors in helping them understand that this is something that's working for us. Obviously we want to go and grow the areas that we started on, but there's a ton of opportunity out there. Christopher Mitchell: And you know the economics. You're telling me... This is a softball as it gets because I'm the one that's always telling people this, but we are going to get high quality internet access to every part of North Carolina, right? Greg Coltrain: Eventually, yes. I believe in that. I believe it will happen. It's just going to take multiple people, multiple entities, multiple partnerships. It's going to take federal funding, it's going to take state funding, it's going to take county and municipal funding. We don't want to leave them out because we've had some counties that have offered grant opportunities to draw us as a partner and then work with them. Christopher Mitchell: Right. And this is actually something I wanted to make sure we talk about. As you mentioned, the best case scenario is we get there over a period of many years. I mean, 10 years, let's say. Maybe more depending on exactly how things fall out. Right now I've made no secret about the fact that I think North Carolina law is slowing that down and I think there's things that get in the way. I think that cities and counties do not have the ability to partner with companies like you. Companies like Open Broadband, which we've talked about before that was presenting in this event earlier. And one of the things that I can imagine someone saying though is, "But Greg, you're partnered with Stokes. You have partnerships with counties." Maybe start by telling me what you can do under current law and then let's talk about what you can't do, how you're limited. 22:44 Greg Coltrain: In the instance of Stokes County, they were able to give us grant funds to have us build the network and own and manage it. What we're talking about where the laws could be changed a bit to help would be where county all ready has assets, where they all ready have fiber in the ground, or where a city all ready has fiber in the ground or hanging on poles or wherever it may be. And they want to be able to go into a relationship with us to lease us that asset or they would like to give us an IRU to use that asset. And there's some gray areas there that cause a lot of counties and cities to be a little stand back and standoffish and they're concerned about whether or not they're breaking the law in North Carolina. If you cross the line into Virginia, there's completely different rules in Virginia that allow those counties to do just about anything they need to to get broadband available to their members of their County. Christopher Mitchell: Just to jump in for a second, in case anyone outside of the great state of North Carolina is listening to this, Virginia does have some limitations. It just doesn't limit the partnerships and the way that you're using them. Greg Coltrain: That's true. Christopher Mitchell: So Virginia is definitely an improvement over North Carolina. I just don't want to set it up as the bastion for what [crosstalk 00:23:56] to. Greg Coltrain: Right, right. That's right. 23:59 Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned Virginia, now you're a very active in Virginia. So you would say categorically it is easier to form these partnerships and expand in Virginia than in North Carolina. Greg Coltrain: It appears to be. I mean, we've had the same kind of engagements in Virginia that we're having across North Carolina. The counties up there, some are establishing grants. Some counties are building their own fiber networks. Some counties are building their own wireless networks. In fact, we have a relationship through one of our acquisitions in a county in Virginia that we helped them build a fixed wireless network years ago that they own, but we manage and maintain it for them. Now, although the wireless technology has been there for a little while and it needs some upgrades, it was a good fit at the time when it was designed and developed. So counties are able to take the initiative there and I'm not necessarily saying in North Carolina that counties would need to get into the broadband business. I'm just saying there are assets hanging out there or in the ground out there that need to be able to be laid on the table for a partner to come along and say, "Can we work out something that makes sense? A good business decision for us to use that to traverse your county or traverse your city to get to the other side where areas are unserved or underserved." And that's what we're asking for. Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think it's a very good point to make. I'll note that I do believe cities and counties should be able to make this decision for themselves. Also believe that states can have different opinions than I do. Greg Coltrain: Sure. Christopher Mitchell: Regardless of what I believe, it is not on the table for cities or counties to operate these networks in the near future in North Carolina. The legislation and the potential changes in 2020 are purely about public private partnerships. So, we're not anticipating any discussion about counties building their own networks. Greg Coltrain: And in North Carolina, I should probably say, there have been a couple cases and I think you've showcased these in maybe some of your other podcasts. The City of Wilson has done an excellent job here in North Carolina in providing services to the people there, but we're not saying we want cities to just get in the broadband business. We feel like that there are plenty of providers out there, adjacent and all over and around these cities, that just want to be able to use some of the assets they have to get across or through. 26:14 Christopher Mitchell: I don't want to spend too much time talking about the cities because I think it detracts from what you're doing. I think this is a valuable conversation to have. I don't think most cities want to do this, I just tend to think the cities that want to do it should be able to do it. And I think they're big boys, they should be able to take the consequences if they make mistakes as some cities have. Many cities that have made mistakes have then recovered from them. But I think we can leave the city discussion there. The main thing that I really want to get at is this sense of this is a big problem. I mean, what you did in Stokes is interesting to me. If you can have access to a fiber line that all ready exists, it speeds up your time to market, it makes you better able to compete in the federal funding. I mean, that's what happened in Stokes, right? You had access to this and then you were able to be more competitive in an auction. Greg Coltrain: Well, actually in Stokes County we built it. They just gave us grant funds to build it for their county. It wasn't an asset that they all ready owned. Christopher Mitchell: My story was way better. I don't- Greg Coltrain: Yeah, I liked your story though. I really did. So we might have to- Christopher Mitchell: No. My point is, and I think that this actually is still relevant. If you're able to access a fiber that is all ready there, it makes you able to be more competitive in a federal auction. Greg Coltrain: Oh, absolutely. Christopher Mitchell: To make sure you're able to get the price per home down enough to get the federal funds. Greg Coltrain: For sure. I mean, it can make the biggest difference in a grant that you might get for $5 million to build several rural areas. If you don't have to build that backbone infrastructure because the asset is all ready partly there or all there or somewhere in between, you're able to extend that money that you've received and do so much more for so many more people. Christopher Mitchell: And in particular, I think this is where the business I think really matters. It is not just about the cost, it's... Time is money. So it is about the cost, but the ability to get moving to get customers on the network, it just all speeds up and you can start maybe getting people in the main corridor connected and get revenue through. It changes the business model I think. Greg Coltrain: That's correct. That's correct. We have some really talented people in our engineering group in-house that have the means to be able to sit down and take a fiber route like that and figure out the best way to capitalize off of that in a much faster turnaround time. So it could take you from having a five-year build out to get somewhere to maybe a year or two years to get the project done. Christopher Mitchell: Let's finish up near where we started with the electric membership corporations, 26 of them, significant chunk of the state, particularly in the rural areas that most need the service. How are you continuing to work with them broadly? 28:52 Greg Coltrain: Well, we've started talking to some other pilots. We heard about Piedmont earlier and the success we've got going on there. But our initial initiative from the statewide level was to try to leverage the assets that they had across the state and leverage the assets that the individual EMCs had. So we were just speaking about the fact that if a county has fiber assets to get into a community that that could save entry time and cost. The EMC has the same assets on the table. And through some provisions that have recently been made through some hard work through advocacy in North Carolina, the EMCs are allowed to share their fiber networks in order to get out to rural underserved or unserved areas. Greg Coltrain: And so we've got a statewide ring in the state that MCNC has, the statewide electric membership corporations have their association called NCEMC and they have an IRU inside of that fiber network and they connect all of their EMC members, the 26 co-ops. The EMCs have fiber to their substations, or at least some of them do. Some are in the design stages of wanting to build fiber to their substations. Some have actually worked to build microwave transmission and put poles up at their substations. And that's a whole nother discussion because there's an opportunity there to do fixed wireless off the poles depending on elevation and that sort of thing. Some of this can be a real engineering nightmare when you sit down, you got to be real creative in what you try to do. But the EMCs that have fiber to their substations, it creates another intriguing model because now you've got that middle mile transport in the community. You've cut down your transport cost and the middle mile to get there. So now you're truly talking about just focusing on that last mile design and build and that's important in cutting the cost. Greg Coltrain: We are engaging counties as we go through this process because we think about it like a bar stool and you've got three legs. You've got RiverStreet, and you've got the EMC, and the County. And if you can have everybody at the table discussing this, everybody has their own predefined desire and interest for why they want to be having this discussion. But having everybody at the table, you can go ahead and say, "Okay county, here's the plan. Your county needs a design. You need to know what the engineering cost is going to be. You need a blueprint for your county. We have brought to the table a partner with our EMC and we want to come into your county and we want to see what the opportunities are." We need to engage the interest of people that live there and we need to have an engineering study. We need to have all of these layers that we put together so we know the cost, we know who needs to be served and where they need to be served. And then we take all of that and kind of wrap it up into a business model and go after grant funds, go after state grant, federal funds, anything that's available out there. We put our own private money into it. We put our grants money into it and we make it happen. Christopher Mitchell: In talking about that, you actually reminded me of something that I wanted to make sure we finished with. Greg Coltrain: Good, good. You bring out the best in people. You know that, right? Christopher Mitchell: We've talked about the telephone co-ops, we've talked about the electric co-ops. The RiverStreet is a for-profit, but its destiny may be to be a broadband co-op. And I think this is real important. I've talked with Eric about it. I've talked with you about it. Let's talk about that briefly. That that is the end goal ultimately. 32:14 Greg Coltrain: I'm glad you mentioned that because we do champion that message a lot and I've heard Eric say repeatedly our desire is maybe one day to get to a point where we just roll all this into a broadband cooperative. All the properties that we have. The customer and members, they're all ready getting the same benefit one way or the other. Pricing is equalized, the quality of that we provide is equalized. I mean, whether they're a member or nonmember, we treat them like a member anyway. It's in our DNA, it's who we are. And so I think that would be our longterm desire. Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Greg. Greg Coltrain: You're very welcome. It was great to see you again. Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for tuning in to the special 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

Medina County Fiber Network Expansion Meets Financial Milestone

muninetworks.org - February 11, 2020

In 2012, the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN) first began offering fiber optic connectivity to businesses and community anchor institutions in the county. Jump forward eight years later and the network is now proving the case that Ohioans also want fast, affordable, reliable connections in the small communities where national providers aren't willing to upgrade. Meeting a Goal When we spoke with CEO David Corrado from MCFN in December 2019 for episode 386 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we learned about the new partnership between MCFN, Lit Communities, and Peak Communications. CEO Brian Snider and Chief Marketing Officer Ben Lewis-Ramirez from Lit Communities also participated in the conversation and the three explained how the partners were employing a community based model to expand the open access fiber optic infrastructure with private capital.  The entity they created for the project is Medina Fiber and focuses on expanding the benefits of the network to residents in Medina County. In a February 11th press release from MCFN, Corrado announced that the project has reached a key milestone. Monthly revenue from the network now equals the MCFN $100,000 monthly bond payment. From the press release: “This is a key metric that we’re pleased to reach as Medina County Fiber Network begins expanding our trusted network to homes throughout Medina County. It’s proof that the county’s investment in fiber infrastructure works well now, and positions our community for even more economic success and better quality-of-life.” In December, the initial construction began to approximately 6,100 households in the Villages of Seville, Westfield Center, and Guilford Township at a cost of around $8 million. According to Corrado, demand in these areas "remains strong." Now that the community based open access model is proving to be effective to bring better connectivity to residents and that locals are showing they want to sign up for services, plans are in the works for the next phase of the build out. To determine where to develop infrastructure, Corrado encourages residents in Medina County to express their interest at https://medina.litcommunities.net/residential/. Engineers will determine where to deploy next based on demand. Partnering for Success The MCFN has experience working with other partners, including FairlawnGig. FairlawnGig, the municipal network in Fairlawn, Ohio, has been leasing extra capacity from MCFN and is delivering service to an expanded service area. The partnership gives FairlawnGig the ability to now serve subscribers in an east-west direction to complement their north-south presence developed on their existing publicly onwed infrastructure. As a result of the collaboration, Akron businesses such as the Bounce Innovation Hub, have been able to access connectivity previously unavailable. Potential for More The MCFN expansion project, funded with private capital, works with multiple providers that offer various services. At this early phase, iFiber is the sole Internet service provider, but the open access environment allows more companies to compete on the infrastructure. As we discussed during the podcast, Docity will provide a telehealth services option to local residents. In places like Guilford Township, Westfield Center, and Seville, local residents need fast, affordable, reliable services and the benefits that accompany more optioins. Even if Interent access is considered "adequate" in some areas, businesses and residents who have the ability to choose something better, often do. From Crain's Celeveland Business: "Current cable providers cannot provide the necessary Internet bandwidth, and the services they offer are very expensive," Seville mayor Carol Carter said in a statement. "We have too many students who must travel to a library just to complete their online homework. Our residents are screaming for more choices and the chance to change from the cable monopoly controlling our township today." Listen to the interview with David Corrado from MCFN, and CEO Brian Snider and Chief Marketing Officer Ben Lewis-Ramirez from Lit Communities: Image of Westfield Center by Inicuo [Public domain] Medina County Fiber Network Press Release, Feb. 11, 2020Tags: medina countyohiofinancialbondpartnershipopen accessruralregional

Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 10

muninetworks.org - February 10, 2020


Project Thor aims to bring Summit County into broadband future by Deepan Dutta, Summit Daily Everyone should benefit from the higher capacity that is now available,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who is also board chair for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “There are many potential benefits for our 911 center, for the hospital, where we often have outages that can be potentially life threatening.   Florida Lakeland seeks private partners to bring forward broadband ideas by Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger   Illinois  Illinois releases first phase of getting high-speed Internet everywhere in the State by Breane Lyga, WREX   Iowa What the Iowa Caucus means for getting Iowa online by Makena Kelly, The Verge   Kentucky Group in Oldham County propose municipal owned broadband system by Rose McBride, WHAS11    Maryland Companies propose $48 million investment in Internet infrastructure in Hagerstown by Alexis Fitzpatrick, Herald-Mail    Massachusetts Washington penny-pinches its way to high-speed Internet by Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle  This year, three fiber service areas will be lit up in Washington, starting with a zone west of Route 8 that could be tested by late February, Lew said. Completion paves the way for "drops" to connect the network to the first subscribers in the town's 279 premises.   Missouri  $61 million investment brings broadband to rural Missourians, Chillicothe News    North Carolina  $10 million North Carolina pilot project spreads broadband by Todd Wetherington, Sun Journal  "We like all our Internet service providers, but right now what we're seeing from my office is that the small businesses and the cooperatives are really stepping up and filling in that void where others don't want to go and serve folks," said Sural.   Oklahoma USDA invests $13.3 million in rural broadband for southwestern Oklahoma, USDA   Pennsylvania  FCC plan could help thousands in rural PA get broadband by John Finnerty, The Daily Item    General  Net Neutral Internet provider gets $2.45 million grant by Elaine Ingalls, Govtech    FCC commits $20.4 billion to help close the rural digital divide by Christine Fisher, engadget   Does 5G have the potential to make the digital divide worse? By Zack Quintance, Govtech  Siefer said there is nothing about 5G that will make it a better option for communities already lacking affordable access to fast Internet. In addition, there is a distinct possibility that in order to access mobile 5G Internet, users will need a newer and more expensive device built for the increased speeds.   Broadband could be a ‘game changer’ for many rural, tribal communities, Indian Country Today    Report: Flawed FCC broadband availability data could leave 20.7 million people unserved by Joan Engebretson, telecompetitor    Opinion: Agriculture + Broadband = Fighting Climate Change by Jon Sallet and Lori Sallet, Agri-Pulse  Sometimes lack of advanced broadband in rural America is seen as a rural problem. But that’s not right. It’s a problem for us all to consider. Agricultural land is an immediately available, low-cost means of tackling climate change. Farmland and ranchland soils can capture carbon, but they require advanced management -- management techniques that broadband can support. Tags: media roundup

Missouri's Gascosage Electric Co-op Members Set for Fiber Connectivity

muninetworks.org - February 10, 2020

Gascosage Electric Cooperative, serving members in south-central Missouri, recently joined the list of ReConnect recipients. The co-op will use a $14 million grant and loan combination to deploy gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to members in four counties where people are unserved and underserved. Natural Choice Gascosage General Manager Carmen Hartwell told St. Louis Public Radio, “We’re really a natural choice for this. We already have the infrastructure in place and a history of bringing utilities to rural residents.” Co-Mo Cooperative and Ozarks Electric Cooperative in Missouri are two other rural electric cooperatives that have expanded the use of their infrastructure to provide broadband to members. In the rural regions of Missouri, as in other states, people living in less populated areas recognize the crucial role high-quality connectivity plays in economic development, educational opportunities, and ability to remain competitive. “When we take a look at educational opportunities and economic development, internet access may stimulate growth of businesses in our area,” said Hartwell. “It might bring more people into our area that otherwise maybe telecommute for their jobs. Now, they’re going to be able to live on family farms.” Phasing In Fiber The co-op has a three-phase plan to connect more than 1,100 households, 20 farms, 20 local businesses, and two rural fire-protection districts. Gascosage has posted detailed information for members, including maps, on their website and their Facebook page revealing exactly where the deployment will occur. The deployment areas are in Camden, Maries, Miller, Phelps, and Pulaski counties. Subscribers will also be able to sign-up for voice services. Phase one should be completed in early 2021 and will make symmetrical gigabit connectivity available to 285 premises, three farms and eight businesses. Phase two will add 295 premises, to the network, and should also be completed in 2021. The largest Phase will connect 729 homes, businesses, and farms; the co-op will deploy this phase in 2022 and 2023.  “When we go to meetings, one of the top requests of school officials, city officials, everyone who has attended these meetings that we’ve participated in, broadband is their top request,” said Melinda Stormes, office manager at Gascosage. Members of Gascosage Electric Cooperative will join an increasing percentage of Missourians who live in rural regions and receive high-quality Internet access from their local co-ops. In this interview from February 2019, Christopher interviewed Jack Davis, Vice President of IT and Special Projects at Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative. The Missouri co-op is deploying FTTH to members in the "bootheel" region of the state. Tags: gascosage electric cooperativemissourirural electric coopruralcooperative

Co-ops, Officials Celebrate December Passage of RURAL Act

muninetworks.org - February 6, 2020

At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act, fixing a tax law change that threatened to raise rates and delay the expansion of broadband for rural cooperative members across the country. Passage of the RURAL Act ensures that cooperatives can accept federal funds for broadband deployment, disaster relief, and other efforts without risking their nonprofit tax exempt status. A change in the 2017 tax law would have labeled these funds as revenue for the first time, potentially causing co-ops to exceed the allowable percentage of non-member income they must maintain to remain tax exempt. After Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Rob Portman(R-Ohio) and Representatives Adrian Smith (R-) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) introduced the bipartisan bill in April, it attracted 55 additional cosponsors in the Senate and more than 300 in the House. It was eventually incorporated into the consolidated appropriations act and signed into law in December. “Obstacles From the Federal Government” We described the possible impact of the 2017 tax law change on rural cooperatives over a year ago, when Senator Smith first brought the issue to our attention. Failure to remedy it would have forced some co-ops to choose between continuing with desperately needed broadband and disaster recovery projects and increasing their members’ rates. Northwestern Electric Cooperative CEO Tyson Littau described the difficulty of that decision to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA): Do we rebuild and try to strengthen our distribution system and pay the taxes, or do we delay the mitigation project that would improve 1,200 miles of line throughout our territory? I think we have a responsibility to the membership to improve the system for the future. Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative was another co-op faced with the prospect of raising electric rates to cover the unexpected taxes. The cooperative received $32 million in federal disaster recovery grants to repair damage from Hurricane Michael. “Our members are still struggling to fix their homes and businesses as it is,” CEO John Bartley told NRECA. “Asking them to pay millions more in higher rates is just wrong.” Forked Deer Electric Cooperative, the recipient of the first USDA ReConnect broadband grant, was also concerned about the impact of the tax law change on co-op members. CEO Jeff Newman explained: All of our members have these high hopes for broadband, and we don’t want to let them down . . . A middle-aged woman came into our office the other day and cried because she can now do online schooling and change her lot in life. We’re realizing broadband has life-changing impacts for our members . . . We don’t need obstacles from the federal government. RURAL Act Fixes Fears Elected officials and cooperatives alike lauded the passage of the RURAL Act, which will prevent cooperatives from losing tax exempt status as a result of accepting needed federal grants. “Without this legislation, many co-ops may miss out on grant income or disaster assistance, hurting our efforts to promote economic development and job creation in these rural areas,” stated bill co-sponsor Senator Portman after it became law. NRECA CEO Jim Matheson celebrated the legislative success in a press release: This [bill] preserves the fundamental nature of the electric cooperative business model and will save electric co-ops tens of millions of dollars each year . . . Moreover, it protects co-op members from unfair increases in their electric rates and provides certainty to co-ops that leverage federal and state grants for economic development, storm recovery and rural broadband deployment. Individual co-ops also cheered the good news. “This means we can receive FEMA grants to help pay for the damage that was done to our system during the last snowstorm, and not be taxed on it,” Debi Wilson, General Manager of Lane Electric Cooperative, told a local news station. “This is huge for our members.” Tags: forked deer electric cooperativenational rural electric cooperative associationrural electric cooptina smithfederal fundingfederal governmentlegislationcooperativecongressruraltaxesgrants

North Carolina Co-ops Partner for Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Bonus Episode Five

muninetworks.org - February 6, 2020

This is our fifth episode of the podcast project we're working on with nonprofit NC Broadband Matters to share broadband news, challenges, and innovations from North Carolina. NC Broadband Matters works to find ways to bring ubiquitous broadband coverage to residents and businesses across the state. Susan Cashion, Vice President, Chief Compliance & Administrative officer from Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation, and Greg Coltrain, Vice President of Business Development for RiverStreet Networks from Wilkes Telephone Cooperative join Christopher for the podcast. When they met up at an event in Raleigh, they discuss the co-ops' collaboration to bring high-quality Internet access to people who live in rural areas. In this interview, we learn more about both cooperatives and about their long histories of serving people who live in rural communities. Each has their own special expertise and this partnership allows them to combine those for the benefit of members who want better connectivity. Piedmont is one of several electric cooperatives that Wilkes, through RiverStreet, is working with to expand connectivity in rural North Carolina. Greg also describes the ways that RiverStreet works with local communities to take advantage of public assets to expand broadband to more households and businesses. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 34 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: podcastbroadband bitsaudionorth carolinarural electric coopcooperativeriver street networkspiedmont electric co-opwilkes communicationsruralpartnership

Owensboro FiberNet Reaches 1,000th Subscriber

muninetworks.org - February 5, 2020

Sixteen months ago, OMUFiberNet in Owensboro, Kentucky, was about to celebrate the 500th subscriber. Now, that number has doubled, reports that Messenger-Inquirer. Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU) has taken a deliberate, steady approach in expanding the network since the 2016 pilot program. Residents and businesses in the community are signing up at a faster rate than anticipated, says OMU telecommunications superintendent Chris Poynter. The utility had not expected to reach the 1,000 mark until late spring. The Messenger-Inquirer reports that at a recent Owensboro Utilities Commission meeting, Poynter told commissioners: Beginning next month, OMU will work to provide internet service to its third segment, or a large portion of Owensboro, The new segment, which will extend the service to about 3,800 potential customers, will run east from South Griffith Avenue, with Griffith Avenue and East 20th Street as its northern borders and College Drive and West Byers Avenue as its southern borders, to Breckenridge Street. Construction on the third segment is scheduled to start in January and end around May 2020.  Poynter said there is a backlog of about 110 customers, with a waitlist that extends into late February and early March. About 14 percent of potential customers are using the service. Poynter said customers on the waiting list are completed on a first-come, first-serve basis.  “Business is growing and doing well and having a backlog and the problems that Chris mentioned are problems of growth,” said General Manager Kevin Frizzell at the meeting. OMUFiberNet offers three tiers of service with all speeds symmetrical:

  • 50 Mbps for $49.99 per month
  • 100 Mbps for $69.99 per month
  • 1 Gbps for $99.99 per month
Subscribers also pay a one-time installation fee of $49.99. OMU plans to blanket the city with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and expects to finish the project by 2023.  Tags: owensborokentuckyexpansionFTTH

Ottawa Keeps Connecting Businesses in the Corn Belt

muninetworks.org - February 5, 2020

Almost six years ago, we told readers about Ottawa, Kansas, where the community of around 13,000 people had invested in publicly owned fiber optic connectivity for local businesses. We recently touched base with IT Director Paul Sommer, who updated us on the progress of their broadband utility and how it has impacted the community. Steady as it Grows When we first met Ottawa, they had worked with the local school district and Franklin County to capitalize on existing fiber infrastructure and expand to more locations. Local leaders had learned from Ottawa businesses that the best options available from incumbent AT&T were T1 lines for approximately $600. Higher capacity connections were scarce and financially out of reach for local establishments, and AT&T could not be convinced to upgrade their infrastructure. As Bigham put it, AT&T was "milking the cow." Once the city, school district, and Franklin County established a partnership, Ottawa began to expand fiber to other municipal facilities and businesses as requested. Sommers, who has taken over as IT Director, says that now all 10 city buildings are on the network. In addition to an industrial park on the original infrastructure on the north end of town, the network now reaches an industrial park to the south. The electric utility has trained their own staff rather than hiring external fiber deployment personnel. In addition to enriching skills, their employees are able to respond quickly if there are downed cables or other maintenance issues. Sommers recalls an instance when a car, which had caught fire, sent shrapnel flying into the air. By a twist of fate, one piece severed the fiber optic cable hanging some distance away. His team was able to rehang and splice the cable that same day and get the subscriber back online. By using electric utility staff, Ottawa has reduced the cost of their incremental build over the years. They typically budget around $100,000 each year for expansion of the network, have never gone over, and often don’t spend the entire allotment. Sommers says that, since they own the utility poles in town, have necessary personnel on hand, and equipment at the ready, unnecessary bureaucracy doesn’t slow down maintenance, repairs, or expansion efforts. Bursting at the Streams When Ottawa began offering service to local businesses and the school district, they decided to take a different approach than the large Internet access companies and they continue that policy today. Even though subscribers may pay for a specific service tier, they are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available on the network at the time they need it. Sommers says that most subscribers in Ottawa don’t use as much bandwidth as they think they do. They monitor bandwidth use and no one has ever abused the ability to burst. The city utility is always looking for new ways to use their fiber optic assets for subscribers’ advantage, says Sommers. For example, when a subscriber has multiple buildings that need service, they link them to create a local area network, so communication between facilities is faster and remains internal. Most of Ottawa's local businesses subscribe to service from the city utility — more than 20 establishments of varying size. According to Sommers, the people who handle businesses’ IT issues appreciate Ottawa’s investment the most. Recently, a local coffee shop subscribed and hired an independent contractor to set up their computer system and Wi-Fi service. The technician said that he travels all over the country doing the same work for other small businesses and that working with Ottawa’s public network was one of his best experiences. He described to Sommers how, with large Internet access companies, he usually has to wait for months to get his clients connected and struggles to get customer service representatives on the phone. In Ottawa, the project was completed quickly and, he said, the speed and reliability was better than he expected. Houses are Covered Sommers says the network has no plans to serve households in Ottawa because residents seem satisfied with service from private sector providers. He’s noticed that residential rates are reasonable and believes that the presence of the municipal network have helped keep rates in check. Residents in Ottawa have choices between DSL from AT&T, cable Internet access from Vyve Broadband, which covers most of the community, and a few fixed wireless providers. While the city of Ottawa isn't planning on deploying fiber to homes, if they ever decide that their residents need another option, they'll have plenty of experience and a solid foundation on which to build. Tags: ottawa kskansasmunibusinessindustrialruralat&tschoolfranklin county ksprices

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 393

muninetworks.org - February 5, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 393 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Mariel Triggs and Edyael Casaperalta from MuralNet about tribal connectivity and wireless spectrum. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.     Edyael Casapera: I know that your work, Chris, is always about supporting communities that want to connect themselves on their own terms and I see the Tribal Priority Window as providing that opportunity for tribes. Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 393 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. On February 3rd, 2020 the FCC opened the Rural Tribal Priority Window to allow rural tribes the opportunity to directly access unassigned spectrum over their tribal lands. This is a unique and empowering opportunity. On native lands, Internet access companies rarely deploy the necessary Internet access infrastructure. Our guests this week, Mariel Triggs and Edyael Casaperalta from MuralNet, have been helping to spread the word to tribal communities to make sure they know that the window will be open until August 3rd, 2020. In this conversation, we learn more about the history of 2.5 GHz spectrum over tribal lands and why the spectrum is a good solution for communities living there. We learn about leases and licenses for fixed wireless spectrum and find out more about who controls them. These are some of the factors that have negatively impacted the ability for tribes to have Internet access. Lisa Gonzalez: Our guests also offer valuable information about the basic criteria that tribes need to meet to take advantage of this opportunity and some of the possible uses of the spectrum. Even if a tribal community isn't interested in building a community network, obtaining access to spectrum over their land will allow them to control the airwaves. Learn more about the Tribal Priority Window by going to fcc.gov and searching for tribal window. Now here's Christopher talking with Mariel Triggs and Edyael Casaperalta from MuralNet. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Today I'm talking to two guests that are so knowledgeable about the subject that we're going to be talking about, spectrum over tribal lands and I'm just going to jump right into introducing Mariel Triggs, the CEO of MuralNet. Welcome to the show. Mariel Triggs: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here. Christopher Mitchell: And a longtime friend Edyael Casaperalta who, I think we've known each other for 10 years. You're the legal advisor and policy strategist to MuralNet now. Edyael Casapera: That's right. It's so great to talk to you Chris. 2:32 Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm just glad that you've escaped law school intact and you're able to once again support us with your prodigious output and thinking. So, but let me start and I think I'll direct this to Mariel first, but what is MuralNet? Mariel Triggs: We're a nonprofit. We were started in 2017 as a group of volunteers out of Silicon Valley because we thought we figured out the answer to the rural digital divide on tribal lands. We put together essentially a tech stack that was open source, cheap equipment that was super reliable, and leveraged the infrastructure that was laid out by folks that had been working in this space forever, such as Matt Rantanen and Valerie Fast Horse of the Coeur d’Alene and Denae Wilson of the Nez Perce, who've built out fiber and microwave rings in that back haul. And we figured out a way to get access to this special spectrum called the Educational Broadband Service Spectrum that had been frozen since the 90s. This is an ideal spectrum because it's been forgotten. I can get into that more, but essentially we put together a kit. We worked with Northern Arizona University and the Havasupai Tribe, their youngest Councilwoman, Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, And what we managed to do in half a day for $15,000 was help connect her community at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Christopher Mitchell: And that is something that I want to come back and actually we'll do an interview, hopefully with you and them, to talk about that in greater depth cause it's a great story. Mariel Triggs: Oh, it is. And unfortunately the tech issue was fairly trivial. The real story came 2018 and 2019 and spearheaded by Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, which was to tackle the policy issue in DC. And during those two years, we partnered with them to really try to change what was happening when it comes to the airwaves over tribal lands. We had some successes that I hope we get to talk more about. Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me just quickly probe on the, you said you thought you had the solution and I'm curious if you have a short explanation for the humble sounding nature of that. 4:48 Mariel Triggs: Well, Silicon Valley, you know how we are. We develop apps and we think we've solved the world's problems. What was humbling about the situation once we had this software and hardware package that could be deployed for very little money and connect to people using fixed wireless, which was quite novel in 2017 but now it's pretty standard, was that even though we had all the equipment up, even though we knew the physics and the tech would work, we had to wait four months to be able to flip a switch and actually connect to people. We had to wait for those permits to be processed by the FCC to allow us to actually broadcast and that took a long time, especially for us. It ended up taking a year and a half to get the Havasupai tribes a permanent license for certain channels to be okayed by the FCC. Mariel Triggs: So what we found is all the equipment can be there, once we got permission to broadcast, flipping the switch, we had to send CPEs, home units, down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I thought it would take two days. It took five. Guess what? Amazon Prime doesn't deliver down there. It's the last place in the US that they still deliver mail by mule train. Loved ordering that, I had to ask for extra packaging because of the bumps and it took an hour with an undergrad from NAU and the head of facilities, Armando Marshall at the Havasupai tribe tribal offices, to actually light up the network. Mariel Triggs: So the humble there was where we were able to contribute back in 2017 the open source software that you can now download off of GitHub that normally would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The hardware package, that was easy to put together. That wasn't the issue. It was that last one. It was about that spectrum access and not even about having access to airwaves. There was no interference. No one else was using it for hundreds of miles around. But having the permission from the federal government to broadcast on those channels, that was the real issue. Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well, that's something that I guess a lot of my listeners I think will not be very surprised to hear, unfortunately. I think, as you were talking, it reminded me that I met you first through the Internet Society at the Indigenous Conductivity Summit recently where you were instrumental in working with local folks for them to build their own community wireless network in Waimanalo and so I just wanted to throw that out there. But I want to turn back to Edyael. You've long been a friend of community solutions and you've really been focused on rural issues in all the time that I've known you. And I'm curious if you can tell us why you think community wireless solutions in this way is such a good fit for Indian country. 7:44 Edyael Casapera: The wireless solution for Indian country is just one more option that tribes and indigenous peoples across the United States can harness to be able to close the digital divide in their communities. As you know, through our mentor work on rural broadband issues, there's still a big population in the United States that do not have access to Internet service and even telephone service. And in part it's because they live in more rural, less populated remote areas, where traditional carriers don't think there's a business case or there's the market really to sustain their operations there. And so these communities are left with having to figure out ways in which they provide Internet services to themselves. And there are many ways. There's community broadband, communities can engage in Fiber-to-the-Home and many technologies. But a lot of them are very costly. And so they have to figure out how can, with the limited resources that we have, find a solution to connect our community members. Edyael Casapera: And what's really unique about the Tribal Priority Window and the 2.5 spectrum is that for the first time tribes will be able to access this critical and great chunk of the airwaves without having to bid at auction. And yes it's limited only to their tribal lands, but typically any entity can bid at auction for a spectrum license and to be able to use a chunk of that airwave. In those auctions, they may be competing with big carriers that can afford millions, that can afford to pay attorneys and lobbyists and bid millions of dollars and do fast deployments. And so when you're bidding against those type of entities, you can be very out of luck. So this is a really unique opportunity for tribes to use another tool to be able to close the divide in their communities, to think about wireless connectivity, to think about the airwaves over their lands, and to be able to control them so that they bring connectivity to their residents. 10:06 Christopher Mitchell: Let me make sure that we're all on the same page. The spectrum across the United States, how we use radios and things like that, is controlled by the Federal Communications Commission and it is a periodically licensed more recently through auctions and in the past there's been no recognition from the US federal government really that the sovereign areas that tribes have been forced into have any greater access to those spectrum. There hasn't been a recognition of any special rights. Right? Edyael Casapera: That's correct. So far up until now tribes have been able to use the airwaves the same way that any commercial entity is, which is by bidding at an auction, as you mentioned. Christopher Mitchell: Before we get into which part of the spectrum is available, what is just a brief description of what is a Tribal Priority Window? Edyael Casapera: The Tribal Priority Window is a six-month period during which the Federal Communications Commission will accept applications from tribes to claim a spectrum license over their own lands in the 2.5 GHz band and each qualifying tribe has to prove four elements to be able to get this license and apply to this window. So those four elements is that, first the tribe has to be a federally-recognized tribe or an Alaskan native village or an entity that is more than 50% owned and controlled by a federally-recognized tribe or Alaskan native village. And this element I think really goes to the FCCs interest in observing the government to government relationship that it has by statute and by many policies with American Indian governments. So they are really wanting to ensure that the licenses end up controlled by tribal governments. 12:13 Edyael Casapera: The second thing that an applicant has to prove is that the land that they want a license over is rural tribal land. So rural means, in this scenario, that the population is less than 50,000 people over that land and that the land is considered to be tribal. And that's usually a category set by the Bureau of Indian affairs. And so there's the list that recognizes all tribal lands. And the third element is that a tribe or an applicant has to prove local prescience over that land and this one the FCC assumes, that if you own the land you have local presence over the land, but for example an entity has to be able to make an argument as to why they are prescient in that rural tribal land and the final element is that there has to be some amount of spectrum in the 2 GHz band available over the land, whether there's just one channel. Edyael Casapera: The whole spectrum doesn't have to be open, but if it's just a small amount of spectrum open over that land, then you can submit an application. Really the FCC seems to be wanting to do a very, like, "If you fulfill these four requirements, we will process your application and you'll get the license awarded to the applicant." Christopher Mitchell: That was very succinct and for people who would like to just get a refresher on that rather than rewinding, you can go to a MuralNet.org where those details are also laid out on the website. Now this window, we're recording this beforehand, but I think we are publishing this show the day after the window opens, so broadly from the beginning of February until whatever is six months after February. Edyael Casapera: Right, the window opens February 3rd at 9:00 AM Eastern time and it closes August 3rd at 6:00 PM Eastern time and we mark the time zone because it will matter to the FCC. Christopher Mitchell: Right. So there's still some more things to talk about with the Tribal Priority Window, but I want to quickly jump over to the spectrum angle. And so this is 2.5 Ghz, and Mariel, I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit about that and issues with who's on it currently and what properties the spectrum has that'll be useful? 14:45 Mariel Triggs: The physics of it is, it's probably mid band spectrum to about five Ghz. It has amazing balance between distance and throughput. Plus it can penetrate through leaves, it's not line of sight. I know a lot of people talk about CDRS as solving so many different issues, but it's not going to be the best rural solution by far because ends up being line of sight. So EBS is pretty special there. And policy-wise, because it's forgotten for so long, its power limitations are actually quite generous. While CDRS and a lot of the unlicensed spectrum is limited at one watt, EBS can screen at 40 watts. So you have a situation here where if you want your radius to talk to each other, not only is it talking at a frequency that carries well and can go far, it also is a frequency that can screen. As you get to the history of it, what happened with EBS is back in the 70s and 80s it was given away free for educational institutions. Mariel Triggs: It had to be for educational uses, or at least 10% of its broadcasting had to be educational uses. It might've been just 5% if I can recall, and way back when it was basically broadcasting Mr. Rogers in rural areas. These schools would get licenses that were 35 miles of radius circles, so they were huge. About 50% of the US ended up being licensed and then they froze the licenses in the 90s, which means that for over half of the US, especially West of the Mississippi, you have a ton of unlicensed spectrum that is basically laying to waste. So with this natural resource, you have this spectrum, which is unique in that it's not renewable resource, it's not a onetime resource. Spectrum is basically, if you're not using it, it's being wasted. So what we have is a spectrum that has basically been going unused for such a long time, and with the advent of Internet and with the advent of fixed wireless communications, this is a great way to connect communities to the flow of information. Christopher Mitchell: I suspect that there's broadly two categories, maybe even three. One is where no one has the rights to use it today. One may be where someone has the rights but is not using it. And then the third may be where they have the rights and they are using it. Are those kind of, does that make sense to segment it in that way? 17:15 Mariel Triggs: Oh no, you did it perfectly. So for the first one, I think that would be basically unlicensed spectrum and that spectrum is going to be available to tribal communities through the Tribal Priority Window. You should act upon that, or at least you should educate yourself on what that means and then decide whether or not you want to claim that spectrum. Because second usually happens when a tribal community within 35 miles of a metropolitan center, say Albuquerque, Santa Fe, whatnot, and what happens in those cases is there's a license over them and it's probably leased. 95% of the licenses that are out there are leased. And that lease is probably held by Sprint. About 71% of the licenses are held by Sprint, I'm sorry, of the leases are held by Sprint. So 71% of the leases are held by Sprint. Christopher Mitchell: Just to interject in the middle, what's the difference between a lease and a license? Edyael Casapera: When you get a license for spectrum to use a spectrum chunk, typically the license are for 10 years, and that allows you to control the use of that spectrum. It also gives you protection from interference. Somebody else cannot use the same spectrum chunk that you just got a license for. And if someone that maybe is broadcasting on the channel next to you, they have to make sure that they're not also interfering with you, so it gives you this protection to use explicitly and also from interference. Now a license, it's a really valuable asset to have because, as Mariel was explaining, the licenses in the 2.5 GHz band were used to be available only for educational institutions. So you have to have an educational purpose to be able to hold the license. But you could lease it to someone who didn't have to have an educational purpose. Edyael Casapera: You could commercialize this license. That's what a lease is. You could allow somebody else to use a piece of the airwave that you got license to and that would allow you to retain use of it for yourself, but essentially it allows you to decide who and how someone controls that piece of the spectrum. Now I'm going to go back. The licenses are awarded for 10 years and then they are renewed for a period of 30 years and some of those requirements that you have to observe in order to maintain the license. But they can become a very, very valuable asset which is how a lot of schools have been using them since the 90s. 20:08 Christopher Mitchell: Great. Now Mariel, I'm sorry I interrupted you. You were explaining the second scenario which is presumably where Sprint is leasing it in some areas and they may have a lease for a large area but only are using a part of that geography, I'm guessing. Mariel Triggs: Well, what ends up happening with these 35 mile, at least 35 mile, radius circles is you need a buildout requirement and the lessee often is the one who's putting up the infrastructure to meet the buildout requirement. I believe for EBS it's 30% coverage by population, so that means 30% of the population within that big circle has to have the ability to get signal enough to be able to carry adequate Internet. It's very vague. So what ends up happening is you put up a cell or two in the most populous areas, you cover 30% of the population pretty easily and you've met your build out requirements, but that means on those fringes, usually it's tribal lands that are on those fringes, the license has a build that has been met but they don't have coverage. So they're in a situation where they can't build and use the spectrum because it is protected and the buildout requirement has been met. Edyael Casapera: And to be clear, I wanted to go back a little bit to the Tribal Priority Window. The spectrum that is available, it's only unlicensed as Mariel explained. If somebody already has a license, even if they're not using it, even if they are not provided Internet service or communication services to the community where the license is, they still have that license protection so their license will not be given away. It's only the stuff that is unlicensed. Edyael Casapera: The kind of a license, if we kind of think of Airbnb as a model, no pun intended with the air, but when you have an Airbnb, essentially at some point you found a way to buy a home and you can choose to live in your home or you can invite guests over to your home and your home maybe has several rooms. With Airbnb now, you can put a room up for rent in your home. And so you get to decide how often somebody comes to your home or maybe you rent it. So it's not just Airbnb, maybe you rent, you enter into an agreement for more than a year to rent to a new roommate, but you still get the protection of having your home for you to live in and you can invite others and set up an agreement to pay you for leasing the room. So I thought maybe that would be a good way to think of licensed and leases. 22:58 Christopher Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it's worth noting that this is a sign for tribes that may be interested, they may be qualified, they may have spectrum that is available, they may not be sure that they want to build a network, but they should still take advantage of this so that they have that option and it's an asset that they can use in the future in the same way that these spectrum licenses have been used for almost a hundred years now. Edyael Casapera: That's exactly right. And while there are requirements about building a network or providing service that have to be met at the two-year and five-year mark of having the license in order to keep the license, even tribes that already have Fiber-to-the-Home, for example, the Mohawk in upstate New York, if there's spectrum available over their lands, why not get it? Why not occupy it and be able to determine how to control it, to figure out ... You said as an asset, as a way to bring in maybe revenue at some point. It also gives you an advantage in negotiations with wireless carriers. Maybe somebody wants to use the airwaves and now you're the one that holds the license, so you get to determine how they use it or for how long or maybe you just want to make sure that that spectrum is reserved for your use only. We definitely encourage tribes to think of this not only for the immediate buildout and for immediate connectivity to their communities, but also for preserving their ability to control the airwaves. And that's just a very small but meaningful step in affirming sovereignty over the airwaves. Christopher Mitchell: It's a wonderful opportunity that you just sketched out. I want to make sure that we cover other opportunities that this represents at this point. So, Edyael, let me ask you to continue, is there other opportunities that, would you like to present the opportunity in different ways? 25:01 Edyael Casapera: I think that. The big deal with this opportunity, the big vision is really to make sure that tribes get to determine the future of connectivity, the present and the future of connectivity, and communications over their own lands and for their communities. I know that your work, Chris, is always about supporting communities that want to connect themselves on their own terms and I see the Tribal Priority Window as providing that opportunity for tribes and providing the first step of hopefully many for the tribes to be able to take control of their communications, present and future. Sadly, one of the things that will happen with the Tribal Priority Window is that if a tribe that has unlicensed spectrum over their lands doesn't show up and claim that license for the unlicensed spectrum, the spectrum will be auctioned to the highest better. Edyael Casapera: So once the window closes, in likely the fall of 2020, the FCC will hold an auction, and if the tribe didn't get that license, that spectrum will be auctioned. That, to me, means that the tribe would have left on the table an opportunity to control the airwaves over their land. What the opportunity also means is that for the first time in this scale, tribes can access this very valuable asset without having to fork hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions in an auction. And so there's very difficult barrier to entry for tribes to become their own Internet service providers or to even engage in a contract with somebody else, with another Internet provider, to provide them service, wireless service, as this barrier is now taken away. The FTC has said, "Okay, we're going to take away this barrier that has prevented indigenous peoples from setting up their own networks." So I think that's also really important, why this is such a big deal. Edyael Casapera: And finally, I just can't stress enough how much hope this I think can offer to Indian country, to do communications on their own terms. That's something that a lot of communities don't get a chance to do. Often we are subject to large carriers that may not understand our needs, may not understand our aspirations in communications, and we are stuck with their understanding of what we need and why we need communications and with their prices and their potentially substandard service. But here's an opportunity for tribes to be in the driver's seat of all of that and provide telecommunication services, Internet connection, in a way that truly responds to the needs of indigenous youth, to the needs of teachers in their communities, that ambitions, the possibilities for telehealth service in their communities, and that supports indigenous businesses in reaching the global marketplace. 28:24 Christopher Mitchell: That's a vision I can fully get behind. And Mariel, I'm curious if there's anything that you'd like to add to this. One of the things I would note for listeners is that I think the next six months you're going to be spending probably more time outside of your home, crisscrossing the nation, working with all kinds of people on this and there must be some reason you find it so motivating. Mariel Triggs: Yes, outreach is what MuralNet will be all about for the next six months. We really want to make sure that no one falls through the cracks, so we're coordinating with a lot of other like-minded institutions in order to make sure the word gets out through regional meetings with travel subsidized, basically analyzing who's not getting reached and sending out volunteers to those communities during the summer. So I want to echo the self-determination part of it. If you look at the current situation, oftentimes local ISPs or larger ISPs will get tribal bidding credits to serve these areas. And what I see happening is, if a community wants to build their own network, all of a sudden they're bidding for spectrum and they're facing the ISP who is now subsidized by the federal government. So it actually makes it harder for them. Mariel Triggs: And what's neat about this situation with the 2.5 GHz spectrum, is it gives them one of the cards right away. And that allows them to determine what they're going to do with their network. And what I mean by cards is, when you're negotiating or when you're working to get your network and get yourself connected in a way that you want to get connected, I see five cards. One is the infrastructure. You need some sort of existing infrastructure or have infrastructure built, such as powers or whatnot. What's nice about this fixed wireless is you only have to get 20 to 35 feet off the ground in order to reach homes a substantial distance away. So the infrastructure access is huge. You need back haul, you need some way to get a connection to the Internet backbone. 30:23 Mariel Triggs: Although an interesting set aside is for meeting the dugout requirements of the Tribal Priority Window licenses, you need connection, but it doesn't actually have to be all the way to the Internet backbone. It could just be an intranet. So you need the back haul, you need the infrastructure, you need the people who are actually providing the service, and you need the spectrum, so the more cards you have there, the easier it is to negotiate to get the service that you want, either by building your own ISP or by building your own community network or some other sustainable model, or by partnering with local ISPs or major telecoms in order to provide service. I'd actually throw in there a fifth card, which is your story, using your story such as the nation of Hawaii in order to get service as well in the way that you want it. Mariel Triggs: And what I mean by the way you want it, you want the network tailored to you. There's hundreds of tribes out there who have different visions of how they want to connect themselves to broadband. And what I see from outside providers, they usually go to a traditional ISP where it's per house or per business, but the fact is is a lot of these communities, you need a pretty strong connection between the local government. You'll probably want connections to your neighbors in some way. You have to have some sort of pipeline to the federal government in order for reporting of things like IHS and whatnot. And then maybe also the connection to the Internet. So it is different. And I want to point out that urban is going to be different than rural, which is going to be different than tribal. And that was made really, really clear last week at a Next Century Cities event by Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Let's linger there for just a second. You want to recapture exactly what her point was, to make sure people understand it? Mariel Triggs: When you're making policy in DC and you're not conferring with the right folks to represent those different stakeholder groups, you're putting up new barriers to prevent them from connecting themselves. So often tribal will be grouped together and rural, but the needs are different. The stakeholders are different, the history is different. So if I got the quote right, "If you don't include tribal in the conversation, you're letting us fail." Now, I would actually put in, "You're making it way harder for us to succeed." 32:37 Mariel Triggs: These are barriers that are actually put into their way. The tribal bidding credits I would actually posit is a barrier for them to connect themselves to the often subsidizes the other companies that they're going to be bidding against in order to get things like spectrum. Her whole thing, as I understand it, is make tribal separate, educate yourself. And the FCC has a really rich resource in the Native Nations Task Force and the Office of Native American Affairs. The Office of ... help me out, Edyael. ONAP stands for? Edyael Casapera: Office of Native Affairs and Policy. Mariel Triggs: Thanks. Christopher Mitchell: We'll be doing future shows talking with Geoffrey Blackwell about how that came to be and the role that it plays. So that's something that I look forward to learning more about and sharing with listeners. Mariel Triggs: I was about to bring him up actually. So they have these rich resources that the FCC seems to refer to or use after they've created policy to say, "Does this work or does that not?" Instead, flip the script, and this is from Matt Rantanen, you should be conferring with them to design the processes and the policies rather than trying to get their okay afterwards. And we got to remember this is a sliver of spectrum and at NCAI, Geoff Blackwell and Matt Rantanen pointed out that with this sliver of spectrum we can set a precedent that then can be carried out for all spectrum auctions. Giving a Tribal Priority Window and having this be a success is huge for establishing what can happen in the future. Christopher Mitchell: That brings up something that I wanted to make sure we got to, which is that when we were all together at the Indigenous Conductivity Summit from the Internet Society, there was a real concern that we were going to have a much shorter window and that the FCC was expecting very little interest from tribes in this. But since then a majority of commissioners saw the value and agreed to have a six-month window, which is much more time to make sure that we're able to take full advantage of it. And so I'm just curious if you want to just briefly discuss that, Edyael. 34:44 Edyael Casapera: When the Tribal Priority Window was first proposed in July of 2019, we learned through the various review processes that the FCC has to go through in order to finalize an order that will collect information from the public, that they were anticipating that maybe you only eight applicants would participate. And they had kind of consulted with about 20 consultants about this, and so they're thinking, "We expect around eight applicants and each will spent around 10 hours trying to figure out how to apply for this." And so based on that, I guess they thought we don't need that much time. We only need about three months. And MuralNet was front and center in advocacy, in making sure that the FCC understood that if they really truly wanted to observe the government to government relationship with tribes, that then they needed to see applicants as the government that they are. Edyael Casapera: Every government has their own processes and their own protocol that they have to follow, and that three months was really no time. It was really no time to allow a government to come to the consensus it needed to reach. And now there are 573 federally-recognized tribes in the United States. That means that 573 governments needed to have at some point figured out that this was happening and get other processes in place to apply in three months. Luckily and with much of advocacy by MuralNet, the FTC extended that window and now we have a better six-month window which is important to have additional time and we have really seen the FCC take on the road and try to get the word out. The ONAP says that they have called every single tribe. We see the effort that they're putting in. Edyael Casapera: We still have to see whether six months is the appropriate time for a sovereign government to be able to get up to speed and figure out exactly what they need to participate. But we do commend the efforts that the FCC has been making to ensure that this happens. And it's exciting to, as you point out, Mariel is mostly on the road and has been for many months already, trying to get the word out about this amazing opportunity and it's exciting to see the interest that is coming out, showing up from Indian country. Tribes really thinking, "Oh, we can be our own ISP or this is something that we can harness." And we're just trying to do our part to make sure that they know where to find the information and how to engage in this process. 37:44 Christopher Mitchell: Mariel, the last question is for you and I did give you a little bit of a warning that I want to ask you this, which is, I'm curious about the challenges that you have faced as, the little bit that I've seen of you in action, you are I would say super technical wiz from Silicon Valley, pretty fast talking, definitely engaging and you definitely have a knack for understanding when people are following you or not. So I don't want to pretend that you're oblivious to that. But you're going to people and, I mean, I've been in this for more than 10 years and I still struggle to keep all of these things straight in my head. You're talking to people who often haven't been thinking about this for very long. Have you had any challenges in terms of, or do you have any advice for other people who are going to be talking about this? What's happened as you've gone out to talk to people about this? Mariel Triggs: A lot of confusion, but that might not be particular to this subject. I think I might just be confusing people in general when I try to communicate. Partnership, Denae Wilson of the Nez Perce, she gave me some great advice about partnership and working with folks. We're always cross-culturally communicating and there's going to be different levels of what I talk about and how I talk to them. Yesterday, I was talking to a bunch of IT people from tribal colleges and the way I approached that conversation is going to be very different when I'm talking to, say, an economic development board. Mariel Triggs: And number one is, don't go in alone. Make sure you have a point person who can help translate. And I guess I did air quotes there, which doesn't work over the radio. Listen first and second listen and third listen. And then after you feel like you've had the story, try to re-explain what you heard and then they'll correct you. You build that trust, you build that relationship, come in with an earnest ear and be willing to change your mind. There's many different situations. There's a lot that we're not aware of. So as I've been traveling and trying to talk about this stuff, you've seen me, I get super excited if someone wants to talk about spectrum policy or anything of that sort, or, let's talk and compare about different types of equipment and what angles the spectrum should be at, all that kind of fun stuff. 39:58 Mariel Triggs: But when it comes to actually seeing and understanding as best I can about what information people need in order to make an informed decision about whether or not to pursue this spectrum, yeah, listen. Everything and I'm quoting Denae Wilson on this, everything is done in partnership. She's actually the one who gave us the advice to learn how to work with the FCC when the rules first came out. Worst case scenario is that the window would have been December and January and that was it. And at first I was all, "This is terrible." Mariel Triggs: But the I listened to the FCC and what they were doing and what their thought process was and then I gave them the information that they needed. "Hey, in our experience, this is how long it took to establish the relationship such that we could actually do something fruitful. That was about 6 to 10 months." And through going back and forth about the different scenarios in our experiences and talking with the FCC, I think they came with a much, much better policy and you can see that in their later rulings or their later publications that they did walk some things back and they did fix some things that were oversights within the orders. And now I could be in Alaska, I could be in Montana, I can be in Albuquerque and I will run into the folks from the FCC, especially the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, doing outreach, trying to get the word out. Christopher Mitchell: I'd like to just add something which is really agreeing with what you said, but one of the things that I had also is don't underestimate local enthusiasm because prior to the Waimanalo workshop, I fully expected people's eyes to be mostly glazed over and I didn't see that. And in large part it's because of the way you structured the workshop, to give them things to work with with their hands. But when people got the sense that they can understand this, they can build it, they can provision it, there was no difference between the enthusiasm of the older children versus the older people who may have been 70 years old. I was really heartened at how enthusiastic people were to learn about this, to be active in it, and that sort of thing. And I was really underestimating that level of interest. Edyael Casapera: Well, it's funny, like that scene where Bumpy's working with his grandson in order to terminate the ethernet cable, that's what it's about. And that balance of Internet as infrastructure, he showed me his framework yesterday about what makes it a lasting infrastructure. And one of the things was confidence. And I got to credit my time as a teacher and my time at Stanford learning about this, but what builds confidence is working off of what people know. There's a lot of technical expertise in the room. If you think about the technical part of things, a lot of it's just plumbing. We talk about the flow of electricity, we talk about the flow of water. This is just a flow of information and if you get people's hands dirty and you break things and you realize you can fix them, then you're going to be able to own your network on a whole new level. 43:02 Christopher Mitchell: We've run long. But let me give Edyael a chance to get a last comment in. Edyael Casapera: Just hearing both of you talk about this build in Hawaii that you were a part of is precisely what gives me so much hope and excitement about the Tribal Priority Window. It's that once tribes have the license in their hands and in their control, then they start, these questions about, "What can we do, what else can we do with this?" The start popping up. I just keep envisioning, maybe growing the workforce of engineers and coders and ISP business owners and really bringing all these possibilities that the Internet age promises everywhere where the Internet is present to the next generation and the current actually, the current and next generation of indigenous youth. Edyael Casapera: So I keep thinking, imagine that this one license allows the tribe to think about how to use wireless technology to revitalize their language program and how to use their indigenous language to code, and I get so excited thinking about the benefits that the rest of the country and the global Indian or wireless ecosystem will get from having indigenous knowledge be part of our conversation about network communications and technology. And that to me is just so exciting. Mariel Triggs: The rest of the world will be able to learn a lot from this. This 2.5 GHz, Tribal Priority Window will lead to a lot of network builds, a lot of different types of sustainable models informed by tribal expertise, and we are going to be able to grow beyond the few business models that we have out there about how to connect to people. 45:03 Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. It's a great place to end this episode. I do want to come back and I want to talk more for more technically minded people about MuralNet and what it does, what the stack is, and things like that, so we'll save that for the future. But thank you both for taking so much time this morning to talk about this. Mariel Triggs: Thank you for having us. Edyael Casapera: Yeah, thank you. This is so fun. Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking about the current Tribal Priority Window open from February 3rd, 2020 until August 3rd, 2020. He was speaking with Mariel Triggs and Edyael Casaperalta from MuralNet. 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. Lisa Gonzalez: 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. 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 393 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thank you for listening. Tags: transcript

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