In California, Tough Economic Times Led Shafter To Adjust Network Plan

In the 1990s, the community of Shafter, California, began developing its strategic plan; the move would eventually lead them to build a municipal broadband network. The town of 17,000 still depended primarily on agriculture but manufacturers were relocating to the community, drawn by its proximity to the railroad and its open space. Potential employers increasingly focused on broadband access as a priority and Shafter realized broadband would be critical to continued growth.

Shafter’s Assistant City Manager Scott Hurlbert recently explained to us how the community built its own fiber network to serve commercial clients, local government, and schools. This incremental approach is not unique but Shafter has no municipal electric nor gas utility, which does puts it in the company of Santa Monica, Mount Vernon, and a few other communities that have built networks without having a municipal power company.

Shafter’s City Council examined its strengths and its weaknesses and found a way to build a network with no borrowing or bonding. The community continues to expand its fiber network, attracting businesses and improving quality of life in this central California town.

In the 1990s AT&T was the main business services provider and it would only improve business telecommunications on an order-by-order basis. Companies that wanted to build beyond the developed town had to pay for the installation themselves, often waiting months to get connected. Prices were "obscene" and the delays almost killed several commercial deals. Even today AT&T takes the same approach in Shafter.

When he joined the City in 2005 as the IT Director, Hurlbert and his staff researched wireless technologies but determined that fiber-optic deployment would be the best option. At that time, the bandwidth demand was already intense and a wireless network would need fiber for backhaul. Hurlbert and staff also investigated other communities, including Chelan, Washington, to look for workable models.

In 2006, three master planned residential subdivisions were approved for expansion of the City of Shafter. The city saw this as an opportunity to start a large-scale FTTH network to serve both business and homes. They developed a triple play model, planning to connect to each of the 11,000 future homes. The city would use revenue from the FTTH network to expand out to surrounding areas for more industrial customers and build a new network for government, schools, and public safety. But when faced with a troubled economy in 2008, plans for the subdivisions evaporated and the FTTH plan was also put on hold.

The community decided to adjust course with a focus on economic development, improving municipal connectivity, and improving public safety. “Jobs, education, safety” became the new mantra. “It’s a cycle,” Hurlbert says, “and if you break that chain the whole thing starts to fall apart.” Community leaders wanted to create a broadband network to draw in more local businesses, serve students, and generate public savings.

Shafter City Seal

At the time the City spent $6,000 per month for six T1 connections. In 2006, Shafter asked AT&T for a quote to connect City Hall to a nearby correctional facility. The relatively small fiber upgrade would have cost $140,000 to build and up to $5,000 per month to lease for a 100 Mbps connection. Rather than depend on AT&T, Shafter decided it was time to start investing in community fiber infrastructure. Budgeting would be predictable and the City would control a network that would provide more capacity.

With less than $200,000 from the general fund, Shafter built fiber connections to city government offices, police offices, the county library, volunteer fire department facilities, the veterans’ hall, the county court house, a local youth center, school district facilities, and a fiber-to-fiber connection with the county sheriff's private network. The city also connected the correctional facility that is now no longer in use. From the day they lit the network, they have never experienced a failure. The existing fiber network consists of four miles in the city core and provides 10 gigabit capacity between its municipal facilities.

Prior to the connecting to the network, the school district used a T1 connection for its main campus and wireless connections to a second campus. Hurlbert tells us that the county superintendent provided multimedia courseware and the T1 lines were sufficient, but the wireless connection did not support it. A large segment of the student body could not access the material, putting any Shafter students behind the learning curve.

Hurlbert established E-rate provider status for the city, and now supplies a dark fiber connection for the school at a $1,000 per month. Shafter’s school district qualifies for a 90% E-rate reimbursement, so the school district actually pays $1,200 per year for 1 gigabit connectivity between facilities. Hurlbert says the city recouped the cost of the expansion in three years and increased the network’s footprint for future expansion.

The City later received a grant from Homeland Security to build a communications tower, which connects to the network. Security cameras on the tower have prevented theft and documented criminal activity at a relatively remote industrial campus. The next phase for the network will include increased public safety applications such as traffic light control and more cameras in industrial areas. 

Shafter has not abandoned its dream of an extensive FTTH network. Hurlbert tells us they have a "guinea pig" subdivision where the developer installed conduit to each property. As the network continues to grow, he sees the "jobs, security, education" chain expanding along with it. Hurlbert says a patient community willing to stick to its long-term vision is critical for success. 

FCC Prioritizes Incumbent Protection in Data Collection Order

Patrick Lucey of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, posted this excellent story around the time we published our rant about the FCC's cave-in to industry pressure for no good reason. We liked it so much, we asked to repost it.

In late June the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order reforming the way it collects data on broadband services. Broadband providers must file forms, known as Form 477, that contain information about their broadband network deployment, customer subscriptions, and speeds offered across the country. The order seeks to expand the FCC’s current broadband data collection efforts and also assume responsibility for administering theNational Broadband Map, initially created by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA). Unfortunately, the vast majority of the order’s contents seem out of line with that goal.

Federal authorities need to collect good data in order to make informed policy decisions. However, the June data order does not add broadband pricing information to the data the FCC would seek to collect. The price residential customers pay for internet access is an important piece of information, not only to understand the state of competition for broadband but also to provide insight on whether services are available at affordable rates.

Past surveys from both the FCC and NTIA have shown that the cost of residential services can be a barrier to broadband adoption for many citizens. A recent newspaper article also note that some citizens may be canceling their existing home subscriptions due to the high cost.  Both the FCC’s own National Broadband Plan and Department of Justice recommended that the FCC collect broadband pricing information to inform their analysis of competition and the American public’s access to broadband.

Yet, rather than discuss the need to collect broadband pricing information, a review of the June order indicates a greater focus on accommodating the interests of internet service providers by stressing how the reforms will reduce burdens associated with reporting data. A “Ctrl + F” word search of the order returns 85 mentions of variations on the word “burden” [burden, burdens, burdensome, burdening], including a combined 15 mentions of the phrases “reducing the burden” and “reduce burdens.” Compare that to only four mentions for the word “price.” Three mentions for the word “affordability” [and all three are found in the same footnote]. The word “adoption” is mentioned 15 times, with the phrase “barriers to adoption” mentioned three times.

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While federal agencies have an obligation to consider the impact or “burden” of regulations and reporting requirements, here it seems to be the overwhelming focus for the FCC in the order.

An encouraging sign are the public statements of Commissioner and Interim Chairwoman Clyburnand Commissioner Rosenworcel. Both acknowledge the need to revisit the topic of collecting broadband pricing information again in the future, with Commissioner Rosenworcel noting how broadband affordability impacts broadband adoption.

Policymakers must be aware of the prices consumers must pay for broadband to understand the state of internet access in America. The FCC should quickly reopen the discussion on Form 477 broadband data and begin collecting price information to make informed policy decisions.

Opelika, Alabama On the Verge of Municipal FTTH

We last checked in with Opelika, Alabama, as they began testing their FTTH network in a pilot project. The community previously overcame Charter Cable's campaign of lies and passed a referendum. Voters approved the plan for a $41 million fiber optic communications and smart grid network. The community has been constructing the network, expanding testing, and building a network hub facility.

OANow.com reporter Tamiko Lowery reports "lightning in a bottle" will soon be serving the public. Customer service operations at City Hall will end on August 2nd when all Opelika Power Services (OPS) offices move to the new facility. June Owens, manager of marketing and communications spoke with Lowery about the anticipated launch:

“Fiber is going to put Opelika on the map like never before,” Owens said. “Opelika should be very proud. Nobody in the state is doing a project like this. And there is not much outside the state of Alabama like this. This is 100 percent fiber to the home. Fiber to the house doesn’t require the electronics in the field – this eliminates problems in the field that you might have with other types of systems. It is truly state-of-the-art equipment at its best.”

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Still in “Testing Mode,” there is not a pin-pointed launch date for the fiber-optic network services.

“But we’re getting close,” Owens said.

She says that once operational, OPS will be able to offer lower rates than surrounding areas to the approximately 12,000 electric customers in Opelika. Once up and running full-speed, OPS will be competing with Charter, Dish and Direct-TV for Opelika customers. In the future, OPS will offer back-up data services to Opelika businesses.

Mayor Gary Fuller spoke with Christopher for Episode #40 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They discussed the community's decision to take connectvity in their own hands after years of dissatisfaction with Charter Cable.

Clearly, the community is excited to get the new triple-play network up and running. The local television, KTVM, also covered the story.

Responding to More "Crazy Talk" - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #55

Following up on our first "Responding to Crazy Talk" episode last month, we decided to publish a second edition this week. Again, Lisa Gonzalez and I respond to real arguments made by those who oppose community owned Internet networks.

Today, we used three arguments from a debate in 2011 that included myself, Jim Baller, Jeff Eisenach, and Rob Atkinson. We chose three arguments from Rob Atkinson for this audio show but strongly recommend watching the entire debate as it examines these issues from more perspectives.

We deal with the term "overbuilding" and competition more generally to discuss how these arguments are quite detrimental to the best solutions for expanding access in rural areas.

The second argument is the classic one that it is simply harder to build networks in the U.S. because we are such a large, spacious country and that statistics from other countries are misleading merely because they are smaller or more dense.

And the final claim is that subscribers are generally happy with what they have and do not need faster connections.

Read the transcript here.

Let us know if you like this format and what questions we should consider the next time we do it. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Verizon Caught Forcing Customers to Take Voice Link Service Across New York

The war over keeping copper alive rages on in New York with more stealthy antics from Verizon. Stop the Cap! now reports that, rather than wait for a hurricane to take out the copper lines in the Catskills, it will quietly shift seasonal home owners to VoiceLink as they request reconnection. Stop the Cap! also published a letter [PDF] from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) who allege Verizon has also been installing VoiceLink in the City.

We recently visited this drama with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on Broadband Bits podcast #52. He and Christopher discussed the issue as it applies to Fire Island in New York and Barrier Island in New Jersey. Verizon has permission from the New York Public Services Commission (NYPSC) to use the VoiceLink product in place of copper wires on a temporary basis as a way to get service to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Seven months is a long time to go without phone service.

Our readers know that VoiceLink short changes users, especially those that rely on phone connections for Life Alert, want to use phone cards, or want the security of reliable 911 service. Feld also noted in his Tales from the Sausage Factory blog, that Verizon was rumored to be making secret plans to expand VoiceLink well beyond the islands, regardless of the limitations of the NYPSC order. 

It appears the rumors were true and only scratch the surface. The letter from CWA District 1 President, Chris Shelton, to the NYPSC relates how members engaged in work for Verizon were trained to install VoiceLink and that the company installed the product in a variety of locations in New York City. One location was a residential building in Manhattan. Reportedly, when elderly residents discovered it would not support Life Alert, they resisted. Verizon counters that it offered VoiceLink as a temporary substitute without charge to the residents, not that it attempted to force the product on residents as CWA alleges [PDF of Verizon's Letter]. According to Verizon, the residents' copper connections were up and running again in June. CWA goes on to allege that Verizon continues to shift staff from copper related positions to installing VoiceLink in Buffalo and Watertown [PDF of Shelton's letter].

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Customers from the Catskills described their experience to Stop the Cap!:

“I got transferred twice and finally ended up talking to someone pushing something called Voice Link.”

...

“I called them back and told them they must be mistaken because I don’t own property on Fire Island and they told me it was no mistake and that they were preparing to distribute Voice Link all across the area and I was lucky to be among the first before they ran out,” the customer tells us.

From another customer:

“When I called to get my dial tone back, Verizon transferred me to a special repair representative who wanted to install Voice Link instead,” he tells us. “It was explained I would be better off with Voice Link and would get more calling features for less money and get national calling, free voicemail, and all of these other extras.”

The customer tried to turn the offer down, but Verizon made it difficult to refuse.

“You really had to argue with them and say no at least a dozen times,” our reader tells us. “The reason I said no is that I tried that same type of service from Verizon Wireless and it sucked. I raised my voice and they finally agreed to reconnect my phone.”

AARP recently expressed its displeasure at Verizon's shenanigans. Wireless Week reprinted parts of their statement [Google Docs]:

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State director for AARP in New York Beth Finkel said in a statement, "Under the cover of Sandy, this push by Verizon could well work towards advancing the company's corporate strategy of steering customers towards more expensive services, but that doesn't match up to protecting the needs and interests of consumers."

AARP’s primary concerns over the switch to Voice Link include compatibility issues with Life Alert and security systems, the possibility of premature and widespread abandonment of wireline services, limitation of Internet service options for Voice Link customers and the end of access to services like collect calling and “0” dial-in access for operators.

Verizon responded by accusing AARP for "crying wolf" and extolled the virtues of VoiceLink. Wireless Week also reports:

[Verizon spokesman John] Bonomo said that Verizon will maintain the copper network where it makes customer service and business sense to do so, adding that the vast majority of Verizon copper customers have no issues at all with their service. 

The complaints and the first CWA letter prompted New York's Attorney General to file an Emergency Petition with the NYPSC. The AG asked the NYPSC to stop Verizon from any more illegal installations and for sanctions:

Unlike Fire Island, wireline network damage from Superstorm Sandy cannot be used as an excuse for substituting Voice Link for wireline service in the Catskills, where the storm had limited impact. Instead, it appears that in the Catskills, Verizon has chosen to pursue the company’s business strategy in blatant disregard for the Commission’s Order.

The Commission’s May 16 Order could not have been clearer in limiting Verizon’s substitution of Voice Link for wire line service to western Fire Island, to enable evaluation of this unproven technology on a pilot basis.

Verizon’s provision of Voice Link outside the confines of western Fire Island is illegal, and its open defiance of the Commission’s May 16 Order must be met with effective sanctions.

NY Public Service Commission Logo

On July 9th, the PSC decided to extend the comment period to September 13. So far, the agency has received over 400 public comments.

Fortunately, New York is not one of the growing number of states to deregulate phone systems so the NYPSC still has authority to act. As Feld notes on his blog:

If New York eliminated its COLR regulations, as a bunch of other states have done, then Verizon would not need to provide service at all. You would take Voice Link and be grateful for it — peasant. As it stands, New York has a Public Service Commission that can investigate and decide based on local evidence and local factors whether anything needs to be done. For example, even if the NY PSC decides Verizon did not violate the terms of its tariff, it might want to provide some guidelines to make sure that these disputes about what kind of sales tactics are permissible do not come up again.

Whatever path New York chooses, other states will be watching. While many have relinquished their ability to act for their own citizens, states that still possess the power to regulate wireline service, and by extension the IP transition, need to take note. Verizon is choosing its business model over the well-being of its customers and not afraid to step on legislative toes to do it. 

FCC Decides Not to Collect Key Data For No Good Reason

The FCC does not have a good sense of what is happening outside DC in terms of broadband availability and data. This has been a conscious choice - it has refused calls (even those made by the FCC itself) to collect useful data that would lead to data-driven policies to encourage the investment we need.

Not only has the FCC refused to collect data, it refuses to take action as companies like Time Warner Cable refuse to tell potential subscribers what the cost of service is. We have first hand experience along these lines - our goal was to document actual consumers prices for Internet access beyond promotional pricing. When we asked Time Warner Cable sales reps for prices after introductory deals expire, they would not quote a price. They would not give an estimate or provide any examples. 

If you are looking for evidence of a failed market, we submit that when a seller can refuse to quote the price that one will pay in 7 months for the service, or even ballpark it, with impunity, the market is busted. Time Warner Cable isn't worried about driving customers away - it many areas of the country it is only real option for not too slow Internet access. So it does as it pleases.

We also contacted the FCC and asked staff where we could find information on the actual prices of broadband. The person on the other end sounded defeated as her voice dropped. "Oh, we don't collect that," she said, "We don't know any one who does. Have you tried calling the providers?"

Call us old fashioned, but we think it's crazy. Even though Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, etc. are some of the largest corporations in our country, affecting the household finances of tens of millions of Americans, their prices for connectivity are masked in a Cloak of Invisibility with the tacit approval of the regulatory body charged with protecting the public.

The Free Press documents a recent missed opportunity to rectify past decisions that have led to a data black hole:

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved changes to its broadband data-collection practices in an order continuing the mapping efforts begun by the National Telecommunications Information Administration. The FCC, however, declined to adopt its own prior proposal to collect broadband pricing information, ignoring strong recommendations from the Justice Department and the National Broadband Plan that it do so. In 2011, when the Commission last proposed collecting broadband pricing data, then-Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated that the FCC needed this data to "better assess affordable and comparable prices."

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Matt Wood, Policy Director, went on to say:

"We’re deeply disappointed that politics once again trumped the public interest at the FCC. The Justice Department, the National Broadband Plan, numerous prior FCC proposals, the current acting FCC chairwoman, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and the incoming FCC chairman have all identified the need to collect broadband pricing data. But because powerful broadband companies oppose the collection of any information that would show just how uncompetitive this market is, the FCC is once again refusing to collect the basic data it needs to do its job.

"Data-driven, informed policymaking should not be political. In his confirmation hearing, incoming Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed that the Commission needs broadband pricing data to carry out its oversight duties. All eyes will be on Mr. Wheeler to see if his actions match his rhetoric. If the FCC continues to fail to collect vital broadband pricing data,we’ll know that industry capture is here to stay at the agency."

As a consumer and a researcher, I say its time to lift that Cloak of Invisbility and provide the info consumers need for the real situation on competition and price. The only reason not to collect this data is because the industry is embarrassed at how poorly it is meeting the needs of communities. So its lobbyists put strong pressure on the FCC to help it hide the evidence.

The revolving door in DC between industry and regulatory bodies confuses those entrusted with protecting the public, leaving them more sympathetic to industry concerns than what markets need to function and consumers need to make rational decisions.

Communities can opt out of this broken system by making local investments and no longer depending on failed federal agencies to protect the essential services a modern economy needs. Publicly owned networks are regulated by the local public even when DC regulators, protecting local businesses and residents from the predatory practices of the distant cable and telco duopoly.

AT&T Lobbying Likely to Increase Wisconsin School, Library Telecom Costs

The University of Wisconsin recently withdrew from its contract with WiscNet, threatening the future of the network. Stop the Cap! reports the University bowed under pressure from Republican lawmakers and threats of litigation from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, and the Wisconsin State Telecom Association (WSTA). Costly litigation could interrupt UW's research and educational work and UW must consider its relationship with the legislature and the future of state funding.

Once again Republican legislators chose the powerful telecom lobby over taxpayers. WiscNet is a buyer coop that allows schools and libraries to keep their telecom costs lower by working together. Weakening WiscNet means the schools and libraries may have to pay higher fees just to maintain the same level of service. 

The telecom industry makes generous contributions to most Wisconsin lawmakers, but Republicans in particular have been enthusiastic about knee-capping any perceived threat to AT&T's monopoly in much of the state. With WiscNet in the cross hairs, ALEC legislators in Wisconsin can expect renewed campaign support. Senator Paul Farrow and Representative Dean Knudson, spearheading efforts to dismantle WiscNet, receive sizeable donations from WSTA, CenturyLink and TDS Telecom.

If WiscNet cannot recover from the loss of UW, local taxpayers will be the ultimate losers as they have to pay more to keep essential institutions connected. WiscNet provides economical broadband service to members all across the state and ample evidence suggest higher rates accompany private service. From the Stop the Cap! article:

Many of WiscNet’s members report that “going private” for Internet connectivity will more than double their costs. This was confirmed by Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, which reported a member paying WiscNet $500 month for Internet service would face bills of $1,100 or more if provided by AT&T or other telecom companies.

But the benefits of WiscNet go far beyond higher costs (which are substantially higher than the example cited for larger institutions). WiscNet has enabled all manner of cost-sharing, including centralizing data storage. These are examples of how local governments and institutions can be responsible stewards of public dollars; unfortunately a majority of Wisconsin Legislators seem to believe the best use of public money is to pad the profits of AT&T.

We've written about these efforts in past years but it seems that AT&T is closer than ever to expanding its revenue from the taxpayers of Wisconsin, all with the blessing of state legislators who scream about wasted taxpayer dollars.

Winchester, Massachusetts, Defeats Plan for Town and School Technology Fund

Winchester, Massachusetts, recently offered voters the chance to create a special fund earmarked for school and government technology infrastructure. The question came during the special election to fill an empty Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. The technology fund proposal, to be funded by taxpayers, did not pass but offers an interesting approach for communities seeking to ensure community anchor institutions have the connections they need.

Wicked Local Winchester reported on the "technology stabilization fund:"

Under the proposal, the fund would receive $350,000 from taxpayers in fiscal year 2014. That figure would increase by 2.5 percent each year. Each Winchester household would pay approximately $50 in taxes into the fund in the fiscal year that begins July 1, according to the proposal.

The fund cannot be used for any end-user devices, including computers, laptops or classroom technology like smartboards. Instead, the fund will cover upgrading and maintaining the town and school computer network.

Opposed community members criticized a lack of detailed plans for the fund and challenged whether it would save public dollars. In the days before the vote, some council members publicly questioned the need for technology improvements.

The proposal failed 54 percent to 46 percent on June 25th. Wicked Local Winchester noted that several voters they met at the polls did not know about the proposal before the election. Support seemed strong from those voting yes:

“I think if we’re going to have an excellent school system, we need the technology to support it,” resident Anne Poskitt said after voting at the Jenks Center.

Resident Patricia Shea expressed similar sentiments after voting at the Lynch School, saying that she feels strongly about the importance of technology because she has three children who attended Winchester schools.

“If this is what we have to do to [improve technology], I support it,” she said.

Also from Wicked Local:

Selectman Jim Johnson, who proposed the technology stabilization fund, was disappointed.

“I thought this was a good way to address the [infrastructure] issue, but it didn’t work,” he said. “We’ll have to come up with Plan B.”

Tennessee Town Tullahoma Tells us Why They Built a Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode #54

For our 54th episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are back in Tennessee to interview Brian Skelton, General Manager of the Tullahoma Utilities Board. They built the network in 2008 and have weathered the tough economy, meeting the business plan while greatly benefiting the community.

This is a particularly content-rich interview, covering the importance of non-gimmick pricing, benefits to schools, local programming, and why they decided to become a gigabit community.

They haven't increased prices of the Internet or telephone service even though they have increased speeds five times for subscribers and added new telephone features. Despite facing tough competition and deep discount pricing, Tullahoma has experienced extremely low churn, which itself is a sign of how valued the service is. You can read our historic coverage of Tullahoma here.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Rockbridge Area Network Authority Close to Launch in Virginia

The Rockbridge Area Network Authority (RANA) is almost ready to launch its open access network in north central Virginia, home to about 22,000 people. A recipient of the BTOP stimulus program, the main focus is connecting community anchor institutions and spurring economic development. However, it has been built to allow service providers to also offer DSL to some residents in the area.

Dan Grim, GIS Manager for Rockbridge County, and one of the driving forces behind the network was kind enough to walk us through the project. In early 2007, the cities of Buena Vista, Lexington, and the County joined forces to commission a study to determine the need for a county wide broadband network. The three jurisdictions matched funding from the state Department of Housing and Community Development to pay for the study, completed in 2008.

Grim had already consulted with local provider, Rockbridge Global Village, about using a regional network to improve public safety mapping. Rockbridge Global Village President, Dusan Janjic, suggested a bigger project and that the three entities apply together for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding. 

Richard Peterson, Chief Technology Officer from nearby W&L determined that the school needed a new and updated data center. In 2009, RANA was officially formed as a collaboration between the local governments and Washington & Lee. The University joined the group and contributed $2.5 million toward a $3 million grant fund match. With the grant fund match to improve their chances, RANA applied for a $10 million BTOP award and received $6.9 million in funding through round two in 2010.

Peterson passed away in 2011. Grim notes that without Peterson, the network would never have expanded so far and may not have become a reality. The data center was later named after him to honor his memory. Network construction started in February 2012.

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Grim described several challenges RANA encountered during construction and planning. The planned network was scaled back from the original 130 miles because construction bids came back higher than expected. RANA still plans on expanding to these locations in the near future.

The Authority also ran into a unique complication when deciding where to bury conduit. The original planned route included one mile of National Forest Service Route and RANA Board Members worried the permitting process would take too long. As an alternative and to allow for more residential connections, they decided on secondary roads. Unfortunately, this led to yet another complication because property lines in Virginia go all the way to the road center line; RANA had to secure easements from property owners.

Land owners were concerned about trenches disturbing trees on their property or what trenching would do to landscaping. RANA secured most of the easements, but in places where they did not get cooperation, the route was moved across the road. The solution increased the cost of installation and set back the launch timeline. Grim recalled old articles reprinted in a local newspaper that described the same issue in 1910 when crews tried to install telephone lines. RANA Board Members went door to door to explain the process to property owners (watch the video below for local coverage).

The network will connect 53 community anchor institutions, including the Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad facilities, K-12 schools and all the local colleges and universities. Public libraries and city and county government offices will also connect to the network. As an open access network, RANA will lease connections to independent providers that will connect end users. In addition to making connections up to 10 Gbps available, the network is leasing dark fiber as well.

The 63 mile fiber backbone consists of about 75% underground with a total network length of 80 miles. RANA is installing 29 DSL cabinets with fiber backhaul in an effort to encourage development to rural residential areas. Grim tells us the DSL cabinets are cross connected with CenturyLink DSL. RANA is currently providing backhaul to six DSL cabinets and Local Competitive Exchange Carrier Virginia Global Communications Systems (parent company to Rockbridge Global Village) is cross connecting into the CenturyLink telephone remotes to provide DSL service over the CenturyLink copper landlines. CenturyLink's T1 provides backhaul for the remaining DSL cabinets. Unless we have misunderstood, this will allow ISPs to use the CenturyLink last mile copper but will not rely entirely on backhaul from the teleco giant. It could also allow later expansion for FTTH by RANA.

In an effort to expand economic development with the network, RANA is offering 84 free business drops. A variety of businesses are lined up for the drops, including attorneys, healthcare clinics, CPAs, coffee roasters, and real estate offices. Two providers, BlueRidge InternetWorks and Rockbridge Global Village, have committed to provide service on the open access network. 

Recently, RANA and Washington & Lee University (W&L) celebrated the Richard A. Peterson Center, a 4,500 square foot data center that will serve the college and the network. The data center will offer service providers the opportunity to co-locate equipment for the open access network. 

Video: 
See video