Paul Bunyan Communications Spreading Fiber Across Northern MN

The northern half of Minnesota, despite its rural character, is rapidly improving in high quality Internet access. Paul Bunyan Communications, the cooperative serving much of the Bemijdi area, began work on its GigaZone network last fall and the network is snaking its way across the region. According to an April 20th press release from the cooperative, GigaZone is now available to 500 more locations from the rural areas near Lake George to Itasca State Park. This brings the number of customers with access to GigaZone to 5,000.

Rates for symmetrical Internet access range from $44.95 per month for 20 Mbps to $74.95 per month for 50 Mbps. Higher speeds are available, including gigabit Internet access, but the cooperative asks potential customers to call for pricing.

We first reported on Paul Bunyan Telephone Communications in 2009. The cooperative began expanding its existing fiber network in 2007 but gigabit connectivity did not become available to members until earlier this year. Upgrades began in Bemidji and will continue to include the cooperatives entire 5,000 square mile service area. As new lines are installed, older lines will also be upgraded to fiber to transform the entire network. 

The cooperative began offering Internet access in 1996 as Paul Bunyan Telephone. Three years later, Paul Bunyan began infrastructure upgrades that allowed it to offer phone, high-speed Internet access, and digital television. The network expanded incrementally and continued to implement technological improvements. In 2005, the cooperative expanded with fiber technology for the first time. In 2010, Paul Bunyan Telephone changed its name to Paul Bunyan Communications.

At an event to announce GigaZone last fall, leadership from the region's economic development commission noted the new unleashed potential:

Greater Bemidji Director Dave Hengel compared Paul Bunyan to pioneering software giant Apple.  

“In many, many ways, Paul Bunyan Communications has become the Apple of greater Bemidji and the region, he said. “They are always on the leading edge.”

The GigaZone network will help attract businesses and workers to the area, Hengel added.

“In fact, I happen to believe that after today, our greatest competitive advantage in the greater Bemidji region will be our broadband network, thanks in very large part to the work of Paul Bunyan,” he said.

Northern Minnesotans in Lake County and Cook County are also in the midst of FTTH projects. You can read more about those projects in our 2014 report All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

Chris to Speak in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 5th

On Tuesday, May 5th, Chris will speak at an open meeting to provide information on municipal fiber networks. The community is in the process of exploring the possibility of investing in infrastructure to improve local connectivity. 

The city formed its task force in 2014 and are in the process of establishing a relationship with a consultant to help them move forward. 

The presentation will be at the Harvard Information Center, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The event starts at 5 p.m.

Charles Benton, Champion of the Public Interest in Telecom, Passes

The world of media education, communication policy, and philanthropy is mourning the loss of Charles Benton who passed away on April 29. He lived a long life encouraging and empowering individuals and communities to use technology to improve their quality of life. But beyond that, specifically working to remove barriers that discourage historically marginalized communities from benefiting from communications technologies.

In addition to serving on the National Museum and Library Services Board for the Obama Administration, Charles advised President Bill Clinton as a member of the Parental Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligation of Digital Television Broadcasters.

He also served his country as Chairman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) and as Chairman of the First White House Conference on Library and Information Services, held in November of 1979. He continued to serve on the NCLIS for another five years, during which time he was unanimously elected Chairman Emeritus.

He and his wife, Marjorie, established the Benton Foundation in honor of his father, William, a public servant and U.S. Senator.

These are only a few of his many accomplishments. Throughout his life, Charles Benton shined the spotlight on the link between communications, media, education, and democracy. To learn more about his life and his achievements, read his obituary on the Benton Foundation website.

This from Chris:

We are deeply saddened at Charles' passing but incredibly inspired by his life. Every time we interacted with Charles, we came away with fresh energy to work in this space. I cannot think of a time when he wasn't smiling during our conversations -- his passion and optimism will carry on. 

Charles Benton, and support from the Benton Foundation, were instrumental in our ability to publish Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. The report is an in-depth look at the municipal fiber optic networks in Chattanooga, TN, Lafayette, LA, and Bristol, VA. 

We miss you, Charles. 

Photo of Charles Benton from the Benton Foundation

Vallejo Commits to Develop Fiber Master Plan

Vallejo recently hired Jory Wolf, CIO from Santa Monica, to help develop a fiber optic master plan, reports the Times Herald. A fiber network now controls the city's intelligent transportation system (ITS) and Vallejo wants to build off that asset to encourage economic development.

Wolf was the key player behind Santa Monica's master plan, which led to the development of its Institutional Network and CityNet, a fiber optic network for business connectivity. According to the article, Vallejo's master plan is expected late this fall. 

Last year, we highlighted a letter to the editor from resident Chris Platzer who suggested using Vallejo's ITS fiber network as the foundation to deploy a municipal network. A number of communities we study take advantage of fiber assets and conduit put in place as part of transportation control, including Martin County in Florida; Arlington, Virginia; and Aurora, Illinois. The Vallejo ITS includes approximately 11 miles of fiber and was built in the 1990s.

In March, city staff included the same idea as part of their recommendations. They also advised developing a joint trench ordinance and fiber upgrade policy, collaborating with nearby Benicia, and joining Next Century Cities. 

From the article:

According to staff, a joint trench ordinance would be essential in upgrading municipal infrastructure as it would allow the timing of installation of conduit to coincide with other underground construction.

Staff is also investigating the possibility of the city drafting a cooperative agreement with Benicia, to provide “better telecommunications service, faster implementation, lower costs ...”

Also on Thursday, the city announced that it has joined Next Century Cities.

Over 80 communities belong to Next Century Cities, an organization of local and regional leaders advancing fast, affordable, reliable Internet access. They provide support, resources, and collaboration to assist communities like Vallejo that want to exercise local control to improve connectivity.

From a city press release:

“Jory brings a wealth of unique experience to Vallejo in terms of how you build, operate and manage a municipal fiber network that will improve internet access and affordability, attract businesses and jobs, and generate revenue for the city,” said Mayor Osby Davis. “The City Council identified the development of a fiber network as a top priority in 2014 and 2015, and retaining Jory represents a significant step towards this goal.”

FCC Opens Spectrum; Creates Citizens Broadband Radio Service

On April 17th, FCC Commissioners voted unanimously to expand the use of spectrum previously reserved for U.S. Army and Navy radar systems. The FCC Report and Order creates the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) which establishes rules for shared use by licensed and unlicensed users.

This is a step forward to ensuring we are getting the most use out of the spectrum - by allowing different entities to share the spectrum when it is not being used in some geographic areas for the purpose it was originally allocated for. Milo Medin of Google explained this plan at Freedom to Connect - watch his presentation here.

According to the FCC Press Release [PDF], sharing will be managed with a three-tiered approach:

In addition to the protected incumbent tier, the Report and Order authorizes two commercial tiers of use in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. The General Authorized Access tier, which allows any user with a certified device to operate without seeking any further Commission approval, will permit low-cost entry into the band, similar to unlicensed uses. A Priority Access tier will make geographically targeted, short-term priority rights to a portion of the band available through future spectrum auctions. One or more Spectrum Access Systems, operated by private commercial entities, will facilitate coexistence among the different user tiers.

Public Knowledge applauded the decision. Senior Vice President Harold Feld:

Today’s FCC’s actions lay the groundwork for changes in the very way we use wireless, allowing different levels of interference protection and network architecture that will make the wireless world of the future as radically different as the smartphone and the WiFi hotspot are from touchtone phones and the CB radios.

New America's Michael Calabrese, Director of New America's Wireless Future Project commended the FCC and pushed for more action:

"Today's bipartisan FCC vote to create a Citizens Broadband Service is a historic step that lays the foundation for spectrum sharing. While exclusive licensing will persist for many years, there is little left to be cleared for traditional auctions. There is, however, a potential spectrum superhighway of grossly underused federal and satellite spectrum that needs to be opened for low-power sharing by both unlicensed users and by priority access licensees who pay for interference protection. The Commission should move quickly to extend this new Citizens Broadband Service to other similar bands with immense fallow capacity, thereby ushering in a new era of wireless broadband abundance."

The Verge quoted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:

"Since they don’t make spectrum anymore, and since spectrum is the pathway of the 21st century, we have to figure out how we’re going to live with a fixed amount," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during Friday's session. "Sharing is key to that." 

In order to address the problems and challenges that may arise as spectrum is shared between public and private users, the FCC Order also calls for a public comment period. 

Our hope is that this step forward begins to allow more unlicensed technologies that will build on the success of Wi-Fi - allowing residents, neighborhoods, communities, etc., to build high capacity wireless networks. Wi-Fi works well within the home but this spectrum could be used to create similar high capacity networks in neighborhoods.

Comcast Merger Wrap-up and Anti-Monopoly Policy - Community Broadband Bits Episode 148

In the aftermath of the Comcast/TWC merger being effectively denied by the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission, we thought it was a key moment to focus on antitrust/anti-monopoly policy in DC. To discuss this topic, we talk this week with Teddy Downey, Executive Editor and CEO of the Capitol Forum as well as Sally Hubbard, Capitol Forum senior correspondent and expert on antitrust.

We start off with the basics of why the Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable posed a problem that regulators were concerned with. From there, we talk more about the cable industry and whether other mergers will similarly alarm regulators.

We end with a short discussion of what states can do to crack down on monopolies and the abuse of market power. Along the way, we discuss whether DC is entering a new era of antimonopoly policy or whether this merger was just uniquely troubling.

We learned about Teddy and Sally from Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation, who we had previously interviewed for one of my favorite shows, episode 83.

Read the transcript from our discussion with Sally and Teddy here.

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

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

FTTH Adding Value to Apartments and Condos, Studies Show

Urban real estate investors take note: FTTH has come of age in the multi-dwelling unit marketplace. (MDU). When looking for new homes, many more renters and owners are now considering FTTH a necessity.

Several studies have established that fiber raises the value of single family homes by $5,000 - $6,000 on a home valued at $300,000. A July 2014 survey, commissioned by Broadband Communities magazine and conducted by RVA LLC indicates that similar results influence MDUs. Clearly, access to FTTH adds measurable value to real estate.

The study examined numerous factors related to knowledge, use, satisfaction, and adoption of FTTH related to MDUs. RVA broke down the results by age, economics, and education attained. While some results were surprising, others were predictable. For example, level of education attained is not necessarily consistent with knowledge of the benefits of FTTH. The study reflects that those with a graduate degree did not have the same appreciation for the technology as those with some college less than a four-year degree.

The level of satisfaction when comparing FTTH to cable, DSL, wireless, and satellite options was not surprising. Of course, fiber-to-the-home far out performed any other technology.

The survey also found that access to broadband has become as important as other utilities: 

Overall, survey respondents indicated that broadband was, indeed, their top amenity. This finding confirms other recent polling and provides finer-grained details: For MDU unit owners, access to good broadband is now the top amenity by a large margin. Renters rated broadband second in terms of amenity importance, close behind “in-unit washer/dryer.” Broadband was valued highly in all types of buildings but especially in student housing and in luxury buildings.

FTTH can influence sale value by 3 percent and rental value by 8 percent. The additional revenue to the building owner far outweighs the initial investment:

For an MDU building owner, outfitting an apartment with FTTH would yield $972 more annual rental revenue and $209 more revenue from lower vacancy rates, the survey shows. Having FTTH at the site would also result in a $120 savings in marketing, administration and maintenance stemming from 31 percent lower churn and more word-of-mouth advertising, according to the survey.

In a May 2014 American Planning Association report, Investing in Place [PDF], researchers asked Millenials, Boomers, and Gen Xers to rank their priorities for urban landscapes:

When asked about high priorities for metro areas, Active Boomers cited high-speed Internet access and affordable housing equally at 65 percent each, which was second only to safe streets (79 percent). Millennials ranked internet service third with 58 percent; safe streets cited first with 76 percent and affordable housing cited second with 71 percent. Generation Xers also ranked Internet service third with 51 percent; safe streets was first (69 percent) and affordable housing was second (57 percent).

These same three metro features also were cited in the same order by three of the four different types of communities — urban, suburban, and small town — and each of the four regions. 

Fiber it quickly becoming on par with considerations of floor plan, natural light, and location. From the Broadband Communities survey:

MDU developers and managers should be marketing broadband, especially FTTH broadband, more aggressively. This is especially true given that broadband is the only amenity (in the list respondents used) that cannot be seen with the naked eye. 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 25

The big news this week was about the fall of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. We like to think it was because of our incredibly brilliant, insightful (also: "witty", "pithy", "charming"...) letter to Comcast.

Once Comcast’s Deal Shifted to a Focus on Broadband, Its Ambitions Were Sunk By JONATHAN MAHLER, New York Times

At the end of the day, the government’s commitment to maintaining a free and open Internet did not square with the prospect of a single company controlling as much as 40 percent of the public’s access to it… it didn’t really matter if Comcast and Time Warner’s cable markets overlapped. The real issue was broadband.

Blocking Comcast Is a Start. But if We Want Better Broadband, We Need Much More by Peter Kafka, Re/Code

'Fast, fair and open:' FCC Chairman lays out his big picture for broadband, WRAL TechWire

In case you missed it, here is a transcript of Chairman Wheeler’s remarks to Broadband Communities in Austin. 

“Our idea of rock stars would be the leaders of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina.”

Community Broadband News by State

California

Digital debate: SF supervisors mull connecting the masses with citywide broadband network by Joshua Sabatini, San Francisco Examiner

“Fiber broadband lines are exactly the same as highway and roads,” Brooks said. “It’s a thing all governments need to put in as a government service so that all people and all businesses can go nuts on that system, enjoy the system and make loads of money.”

Brooks said The City would ultimately recoup the costs with businesses “chomping at the bit” to use a fast city-owned broadband service, which would charge them less than other private services like Comcast.

“We are way behind the curve and the way to get ahead of the curve is to just build out a public system,” he said.

Maryland

Boone talks Internet expansion by Dorian Mitchell, My Eastern Shore Maryland

“When you see kids in their dad’s pickup truck in the library parking lot on Sundays, trying to connect to the Internet, that’s what we call a Third-World issue,” he said. “That shouldn’t be happening in this country.”

Boone said the project involves a theoretical “ring” of dark fiber-optic cable, starting in the Fairlee area and possibly extending as far west as U.S. Route 301, that would encircle the existing structures in Kent County. This ring would allow a provider to “light” the cable and beam their services all over the county.

“We’re looking to keep the price at zero,” he said. “We’re not looking to create revenue, our goal is to give it (service) away as much as possible without being in the red.”

Massachusetts

Hilltown officials puzzle over broadband costs by Diane Broncaccio, The Recorder

Michigan

VIDEO: Southern Michigan’s Rural Broadband Revolution

In the 1930s, electric cooperatives were formed to bring power and light to the rural space. Today, Midwest Energy Cooperative is again responding to the needs of those who are unserved and underserved as a result of geography by leveraging the utility fiber communications system to offer a true high-speed internet solution to its members. 

Minnesota

Economic Development and Fiber, Pots and Pans

New Mexico

SF [Santa Fe] launches $1M broadband infrastructure project by T.S. Last, Albquerque Journal

“Here’s the government doing what it’s supposed to do: helping out its citizenry,” he said, comparing the project to streets and highways. “It’s one of these things that this is a lot more important than it may appear to be. Improving people’s access to the Internet will help increase what they are able to do and its effects will be felt for a long time.”

New York

Expansion of high speed Internet can help region stay competitive by Elizabeth Cooper, Utica Observer-Dispatch

Broadband for everyone by 2019! The new state budget included a $500 million allocation for the expansion of high speed Internet, and it's slated to be complete by the end of 2018.

Oregon

Oregon Changes State Tax Law to Lure Google Fiber by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

Other Broadband News

Smart Cities: It's More Than Broadband by John M. Eger, Huffington Post

Nothing could be more timely or important as this signal to cities that our future, the future of America in the Internet age, depends on renewing, often reinventing, our cities for the global, knowledge economy.

In every study about economic development, the importance of broadband Internet services is mentioned prominently. Given the realignment of power in the world -- from nations to cities to individuals -- what the city does or does not do can determine their community's success and survival, or its demise; and as such, will determine the nation's success or failure.

Look to the States on Broadband by The Editorial Board, New York Times

Bloomberg's 'What Works Cities' Initiative Targets 100 Mid-Sized Metros by Colin Wood, GovTech

The $42 million, three-year program will provide expertise and time to cities that want data-driven solutions for their biggest challenges.

Broadband and Real Estate by Doug Dawson, Pots and Pans

The numbers behind the broadband ‘homework gap’ by John B Horrigan, Pew Research Institute

ECFiber Seeks New Business Model Designation

ECFiber hopes to transform its business model in order to attract investors, reported Valley News in February. The organization is now an "inter-local contract," an entity somewhat unique to Vermont, but seeks to change to a "telecommunications union district." Similar to a municipal utility district, the telecommunications union district is created by two or more municipalities. The new business model would not change ECFiber's governance or require financial support from local towns but officials believe it would attract more outside investors.

Last year, ECFiber announced it would expand in 2015, seeking large scale funding to help speed up deployment. Since 2008, the organization has raised over $6 million for deployment from individual investors and now serves more than 1,000 subscribers. Unfortunately, this method financing slows expansion. The results are bad for ECFiber and bad for local consumers:

“The worst thing (about ECFiber’s delay) is a lot of the people who wanted to have it weren’t able to get it right away,” said [ECFiber Treasurer John] Roy.

At this point, FairPoint, Northern New England’s provider of land-line service, is able to reach more rural areas than ECFiber with its high-speed Internet service. But, FairPoint’s speeds of up to 30 megabits per second are slower than the 400 megabits per second ECFiber’s cables can provide, said Roy.

“If we’re going to get this job done before the end of this decade, we need to step up the rate,” said [Irv] Thomae [ECFiber's Governing Board Chariman].

It would take another 17 - 18 years to deploy 1,600 miles of fiber, the ECFiber goal. If the organization can raised $40 million from larger investors, that period can be reduced to 3 - 5 years, estimated Roy.

In order to achieve the business model change, ECFiber seeks approval from the State Legislature, which will create a union district via H 353 [PDF]. Local communities served by ECFiber must also approve the measure by ballot at their Town Meetings. Thetford approved the measure in February and ECFiber officials expected other communities to follow with no surprises.

Local communities may have no problem taking care of business, but the same cannot be said for state leaders. H 353 and two others are stalled in the State Legislature's Commerce and Economic Development Committee, reports VTDigger. All three bills are designed to help advance rural broadband development but have been put on the back burner while the committee deals with other matters.

Rep. Jim Masland from Theford introduced H 353. He told Valley News that he was optimistic about passage and that "it shouldn't be controversial." Hopefully, the committee can tend to the bill quickly this session so ECFiber can continue to do its good work. Delay only benefits Fairpoint and harms consumers who want better services from a local, accountable, publicly minded network provider.

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
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