North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 188

North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.

This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services.

Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.

Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Mount Washington Muni: Permission to Move Ahead Granted

The town of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, has successfully streamlined its ability to invest in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

On January 22nd, Governor Charlie Baker signed a home-rule bill specifically granting the tiny town of 124 residents a special authority:

"Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the town of Mount Washington may own, operate, maintain, manage or hire others to do so on its behalf, and to take any reasonable action necessary to establish and operate broadband high speed internet infrastructure and services without the establishment of a municipal light plant."

Another Underserved Rural Town

Mount Washington is located in the southwest corner of the state; much of the community is covered by the Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett State Reservation. Large incumbents do not feel investment in fast, affordable, reliable network infrastructure would pay off. Due to a small population, the Taconic Mountains, and thickly wooded geography, any return on investment will take longer in Mount Washington than in urban areas.

Brian Tobin from the town's Select Board told WAMC:

“The town of Mount Washington is about as underserved as you can get in terms of broadband,” Tobin said. “Some people have long-distance wifi and others have satellite internet, but neither of those are satisfactory and it’s certainly not a 21st century solution to having reliable broadband.”

The community recognized that if they want 21st century connectivity they would have to build a municipal network.

Not Sold On Wired West

Many other communities in western Massachusetts have committed to joining the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). The MLP is a state-required municipal entity responsible for the administration of a municipal network. Wired West officials describe it as a "cooperative of MLPs."

This new law, which applies only to Mount Washington, allows the community to move forward with their project without establishing an MLP. Tobin told WAMC that the community did not feel comfortable committing to Wired West. They wanted to be solely responsible for their own telecommunications future and:

“We also believed, or at least I did, that we could easily be at the end of the line, because we are physically, in terms of getting it built out,” Tobin said. “We thought we could probably move faster on our own and so far I think about right about that.”

Mount Washington appears to have made a prudent choice. The current feud between Wired West and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) over the release of $40 million of state funds has halted deployment of the regional network.

Confident Rural Town

The town has already released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for an FTTH network; responses are due March 14th. They have set aside $250,000 for the project and are exploring additional funding options such as borrowing and a possible grant from MBI.

Tobin told the Berkshire Eagle that a town-wide poll in 2015 resulted in overwhelming support for the project:

"There are a handful of residents who have satellite Internet," said Tobin. "But we believe that even they will support this, if only in terms of improved property values."

The final town approval for the plan will happen at an upcoming regular or special town meeting. That will require a two-thirds majority," and while I don't want to speak for the voters, I'm confident we'll get that."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - February 8

Tennessee

State House Speaker Harwell expects rural broadband bill delay to next year by Richard Locker, Commercial Appeal

Supporters of a bill seeking to allow municipal broadband providers to expand high-speed Internet service to rural areas are calling the measure long overdue by Erik Schelzig, Daily Journal

'AT&T is the villain' in battle over rural broadband access, Republican lawmaker says by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

 

Virginia

Sunset Telecommunications trying to buy BVU's Optinet by David McGee, Bristol Herald Courier

We've covered BVU in the past for their successful establishment of a municipal network as well as their expansion into surrounding communities. Developments in Bristol impact the community's access to fast, affordable, reliable Internet access via the municipal utility. All the community's achievements in bringing the BVU OptiNet to the people of Bristol will soon just be a chapter in the city's history, if this deal goes through.

 

West Virginia

Internet bill would build government-owned high-speed 'middle mile' by Pamela Pritt, Charleston Register-Herald

 

General

On American Indian reservations, challenges perpetuate the digital divide by Julianne Tvetan, ArsTechnica

Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus launches by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

Bernie Sanders urges FCC to stop Comcast billing fraud by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

"Given the power big corporations have over American consumers, the need to stop unfair billing practices and ensure affordable cable and Internet services for all Americans is all the more important," proclaims the letter.

Challenge to FCC preemption of state prohibition on municipal broadband to be heard in March by Davis Wright Tremaine, Lexology

AT&T: subsidies for us are good, but community broadband is bad by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

Newark, Delaware, City Council Votes For Feasibility Study

Newark, Delaware, prides itself on its small-city status: a bike-friendly place with a great main street and home to 30,000 residents. Some, however, consider poor Internet access Newark's biggest small-city problem.

In December, the City Council decided to move forward with a feasibility study for a municipal broadband network. In a 4-3 vote, the city council hired a consulting firm to investigate the city’s options for connectivity. For $69,000, the firm will answer Newark's questions, and the city will attempt to make an informed decision on the possibility of a municipal network.

Process for a Feasibility Study

As we reported in September, residents have driven the push toward a publicly owned network; the city council took notice and began considering the possibility. In October 2015, They hosted a public meeting to bring together community stakeholders and interested residents. At that point, community leaders heard from a consulting company about what a feasibility study would entail.

Originally priced at $10,000 for a basic analysis, the cost of the feasibility study increased to $69,000 over the next several months because the city council chose to expand the depth of the study. They wanted an extensive analysis of all the options, especially connecting to the local University of Delaware to any proposed municipal network. At the city council meeting in December, members decided to greenlight the feasibility study. The funding will come out of the budget for the Legislative Department’s legal and consulting services.

Why A Municipal Network?

In 2014, the city installed smart electric and water meters which run on a Wi-Fi mesh network. Having greater connectivity could encourage expansion for other uses. High-quality Internet access for businesses and residents, high-speed data transport for local healthcare clinics, parking meters, surveillance, public safety, and cloud computing are only few potential uses for a municipal fiber network. 

With the city’s thriving downtown and strong sense of community, it takes little to imagine the addition of a municipal network:

Is It Worth It?

Whether or not to fund a feasibility study was a point of contention among the city council. Councilwoman Marge Hadden pushed back on that notion. Even if the feasibility study reveals that a municipal network is not the best choice for Newark, the potential benefits should be explored:

“$69,000 is a big investment, but it’s an investment in the community,”

Owensboro Residents Flying High On Fiber Pilot

Last fall, Owensboro, Kentucky, began constructing its pilot program to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to a limited number of residents. Construction is complete and now the municipal utility is serving subscribers, much to the delight of folks in the city's Town & County neighborhood. There are 570 households and approximately 1,500 people living in the pilot area.

As of late January, 80 households had signed up for service with 15 now being served at a rated of about eight installations completed every week. Chris Poynter, superintendent of Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU) telecommunications division reported to the Board that feedback has been positive and that customers have been "…very happy with their speeds and the installation process."

All speeds are symmetrical - just as fast on the upload as the download - and there is a $49.99 installation fee. OMU offers three tiers: 

  • 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.99
  • 100 Mbps for $69.99
  • 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) for $99.99

OMU installed fiber thought the city in 1997 and two years later began offering high-speed Internet access and other telecommunications services to local businesses. OMU's goal is to serve a minimum of 20 percent of the households in the pilot area and if all goes well, the community will consider a city-wide project. 

Home to about 58,000, Owensboro sits across the river from Ohio. The city is the county seat and center of a metropolitan area of about 116,000 people. OMU also offers electricity and water services.

Speeds Up, Prices Steady (or Down!) With EC Fiber

The East-Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (EC Fiber) recently announced plans to increase speeds across tiers with no increase in prices.

Changes will look like this:

  • "Basic" will increase from 7 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)
  • "Standard" will increase from 20 to 25 Mbps
  • "Ultra" will double from 50 to 100
  • The new "Wicked" plan will increase from 100 to 500 AND will include a price decrease. (Current subscribers to the Wicked tier who pay for 400 Mbps will also get the bump up to 500 Mbps and the price decrease.)

All speeds from EC Fiber are symmetrical so both download and upload are equally fast.

Self-Funded at the Start

Twenty-four communities in Vermont make up the consortium which began in 2009. The towns joined forces to deploy a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network when large corporate incumbent providers chose to invest elsewhere. Slow DSL was the best option in the area and local residents, businesses, and local institutions needed better connectivity.

Individual investors funded the initial network buildout but last year a new Vermont law took affect that allows towns to create "communications union districts." EC Fiber now functions under such a governance structure and organization officials expect to more easily attract larger investors and borrow at lower interest rates. EC Fiber hopes to answer requests to expand beyond its 24 member towns.

Characteristic Altruism

Increasing speeds with little or no rate increases is typical of publicly owned network communities. Tullahoma's LightTUBe, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, and Lafayette's LUS Fiber have done it, often with little or no fanfare.

Publicly owned networks are also known to shun data caps, another tool big players like Comcast use to squeeze every penny out of subscribers. EC Fiber summed up why data caps are inconsistent with the publicly owned network philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”

Mr. and Mrs. Monopoly Seek Treatment with Competify

Check out this new video from the Competify coalition. The short 2-minute feature introduces viewers to Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly, who are clearly suffering from "chronic broadband access control."

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly

Competify focuses on raising awareness about the long term damage caused by lack of high-quality Internet access competition. Our livelihoods suffer when a small number of huge corporate telecommunications providers control connectivity. The coalition provides hard information on how these de facto monopolies and duopolies negatively impact our lives and how a more competitive environment can help.

Here is a statement from Competify and the Partners for the Cure:

The largest data collection ever conducted by the FCC and almost a decade of advocacy by those throughout the broadband economy have finally brought us to this long-awaited milestone — the FCC’s review of the high-capacity broadband market. As the incumbents struggle to come to terms with the fact that their own behavior has given them chronic broadband access control, they seem to be trying to blame the high-capacity broadband lines they sell for their very own conduct. Here at COMPETIFY, we have a message for those critical high-speed broadband lines: from powering schools and libraries to 5G to the Internet of Things, we think you are pretty “special.” And today is a major step toward your freedom.

It’s important to note that a very common symptom of chronic broadband access control is confusion. Indeed, the large incumbent companies have gone to great lengths to explain why the lines providing vital broadband service to our businesses, hospitals, schools, government buildings, banks and countless other indispensable institutions are “not very special anymore” and are “obsolete.” By all means, if those interests insist on that point of view, then they should have no concerns whatsoever about this proceeding, as they have obviously moved on to more “special” technologies.  In the meantime, the rest of the broadband economy anxiously awaits the FCC’s efforts to finally cure this diseased marketplace.

Visit the Competify website to learn more and to sign the petition asking the FCC to take action to encourage competition through smart policies.

St. Louis Park And Developers Ready The Wires

Community leaders in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, are taking advantage of growth in apartment and condominium developments to "till the soil" for better residential connectivity. One of the smartest things a community can do to improve connectivity is prepare an environment that encourages high-speed connectivity infrastructure investment. As developers erect new buildings, the city is working with them to develop internal wiring standards and conduit installation standards for high-quality Internet access within and to their buildings.

Developers Understand The Value

The city of approximately 45,000, located immediately west of Minneapolis has not adopted any formal building code language, but has negotiated broadband readiness specifications with several new multi-dwelling unit building developers. Savvy developers realize that high-speed connectivity is now a basic utility that tenants demand.

Loma Linda, California, implemented a similar approach when it passed an ordinance concerning wiring codes for its Connected Communities Program in 2004. New development and remodels that involve more than 50 percent of the structure must include internal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) wiring. Developers, recognizing the increase in value of properties wired for FTTH, have embraced the practice.

A Goal to Better the Community

The effort is St. Louis Park's intention to turn the city into a "technology connected community," and is part of St. Louis Park City Council Goals & Priorities. The city and the developer begin with basic language and the parties make changes to accommodate the unique needs of each development:

Broadband Readiness

Redeveloper shall install at its cost dedicated wired connections from each building’s telecommunications point of presence to each internal wiring closet, thence to each living and working unit. Each living and working unit shall have a minimum of two (2) connections, each capable of supporting at minimum a one-gigabit connection.

To provide for future high-speed broadband service, the Redeveloper shall install at its cost one empty 2-inch conduit from within a new or existing handhole in proximity to its existing telecommunications services, typically in public Right-of-Way, (Point A) to a point of presence within each building in proximity to its existing telecommunications services (Point B). Alternatively, the developer shall provide an easement to the City of St. Louis Park that can accommodate said 2-inch conduit from Point A to Point B, inclusive of related telecommunications facilities at each point.

The city has not formally adopted Broadband Readiness as part of its building code but is leaning toward such an approach. The City Council is interested in exploring language for an ordinance or city code addressing broadband readiness and hopes to make significant progress in 2016.

Andrew Blum Decides to Visit the Internet - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 187

We head directly into the Internet this week with Andrew Blum, author of the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. We wrote about it when it was published back in 2012. It is as relevant today as then - buy it from your local bookstore.

In our discussion, we talk about the physical infrastructure and geography of the Internet. Blum traveled around the planet, seeking out key Internet locations and exploring how the Internet actually works.

We discuss peering, the municipal fiber network in The Dalles of Oregon, and how squirrels have cynically targeted last mile vulnerabilities to disrupt household connections.

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

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."