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New Details on Possible FTTP Network in Holland, MI

In March, we wrote about a prospective municipal fiber network project in the western Michigan city of Holland. Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) began a pilot test in January, offering gigabit speed services to three commercial buildings in the city via a system of dark fiber cable that the city has owned for more than two decades.

Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) has since released a study that details options for a citywide municipally owned Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. Although the study is only a first step toward developing a final business plan for the network, it gives significant insight into the city’s plans for the project.

Prospective Network Footprint and Business Model

In the first option, the city could invest $63.2 million to add nearly 500 miles of fiber lines to the city’s existing fiber infrastructure to create a municipal FTTP network for the entire HBPW service area. The new network would reach all of the homes, businesses, and municipal facilities in Holland and in neighboring communities that fall within the HBPW’s service area.

The second option suggests a $29.8 million investment on a fiber network with a smaller FTTP footprint that would provide gigabit speed fiber connections to all premises within the Holland city limits.

According to the study, the city prefers a “hybrid open access” business model in which Holland would provide retail services while also preserving its current open access model. The study also discusses potential FTTP models the city could consider, including one in which the city serves as the network’s sole ISP as well as several different potential public-private partnership (PPP) models that have been successful in other cities.

The study suggests that the city can finance the larger of the proposed network projects with a combination of bonds and loans. The study assumes a 39.6 percent take rate

Faster Speeds, Better Rates

The fastest connectivity customers in Holland can get from the existing city network is not competitive on speed and price with the services offered by local incumbent providers. The established network serves only commercial customers; the pilot project is the city's experiment in residential and small- and mid-sized business connectivity.

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But with a newly expanded FTTP network, the city would dramatically improve options to residents and businesses. Based on their 39.6 percent take rate, consultants proposed subscription rates for 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access:

  • Residents: $80 per month
  • Small commercial service: $85 per month
  • Medium commercial services: $220 per month

The study notes an additional, one-time $820 charge to connect each premise to the network.

Opportunity for Local Collaboration?

The city of Holland may also have the opportunity to cooperate on a broader network plan with Laketown Township, a neighboring community that recently proposed creating its own municipal fiber network. Laketown Township, part of which falls within HBPW’s service area, will vote in May on a proposed $8.6 million fiber network.

"When we began developing the fiber broadband business plan, we were unaware that Laketown was also pursuing fiber for the township,” a statement from the HBPW said. “We will gladly work and meet with Laketown officials to coordinate our offerings."

Local Fiber = Local Benefits

Whatever the final decision, Holland City Council Member Brian Burch makes a powerful argument highlighting the economic and quality of life benefits for everyone who lives and works within reach of the future network:

"Like drinking water, access to information is the new public health…. Advances in information and communications technology means that education is no longer confined to the classroom and our children can become more competitive in the global economy. Like strong transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and water channels, public infrastructure allows commerce to grow and for private business to thrive…. The “backbone” of this gigabit network is currently wired, our next step is to bring this capability into homes and small businesses. By doing so, Holland can be at the forefront of the new economy and define our region with more educated residents and an even faster-growing economy."

Bloomington, Indiana May Bloom with an RFI

“The Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana” could soon be the gateway to high-speed Internet access in Indiana.  The city of Bloomington, Indiana, has undertaken several projects and events in order to empower the community to find solutions to its connectivity problems.

The city of Bloomington issued a Request For Information (RFI) for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network on March 31, 2016. City leaders have taken this next step in order to make high-speed Internet access affordable and available to all of the city’s 80,000 people.

A Bull’s Eye: The RFI

Unlike the often-mentioned Request For Proposal (RFP), an RFI does not establish a plan of action. Instead, the RFI creates a procedure for Internet service providers (ISPs), contractors, and other companies to provide information on how they would create a network to best meet the needs of the city. The city's deadline to answer any questions from interested firms is April 28th and RFI responses are due on May 12th.

Rick Dietz spoke with us the day after the city released the RFI. Dietz is the Director of ITS for the city of Bloomington. He described how the city had come to its decision to pursue a community network. The mayor and city council hired a consultant and held a symposium on high-speed networks, before releasing the RFI.

Dietz repeated the three key components that are integral to the RFI:

  • Community-wide connectivity, to enable everyone to use the network.
  • Community-control, to ensure the network meets the community’s needs.
  • Financial sustainability to the community in the future.

Without these principles, a new network will likely not be right for Bloomington. The RFI calls for any incumbent providers, local providers, or others to describe their ideas to achieve these goals, whether through a private public partnership or not. The City has taken a number of steps to enable this process to go smoothly.

The February Symposium

In February, the city held a symposium on next-generation networks. It brought together local and national experts in fiber networks. A recording of the entire event is available on YouTube at “Bloomington Symposium on Next-Generation High Speed Networks.” Speakers included Blair Levin from Gig.U, Erin Deacon from KC Digital Drive, and several others who described how Bloomington would benefit from a fiber network.

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Throughout the event, city leaders and community members learned much about the opportunities for high-speed Internet access in Bloomington. Mayor John Hamilton, a long-time advocate for better connectivity in Bloomington, ended the symposium by announcing the plans to release the RFI:

“Today is a beginning not an ending. We have a lot of work ahead -- my head is buzzing and swimming in a good way. There has been a great deal of information and energy and activity a lot depends on our doing this hard-work together.”

The RFI makes reference to several key assets, such as Bloomington Digital Underground (BDU), that the city could use as they develop the project. BDU is a system of existing city-owned conduits and fiber that could facilitate the creation of a new municipal network. 

New Century, New Approach

Back in 1999, the City Council and the Mayor’s Office began to create a comprehensive plan to install fiber-optic cable and conduit throughout the city’s rights-of-way. Whenever the city begins a construction project, such as improving roads or sewers, they add extra conduit for future fiber-optic cables.

BDU also led to the construction of a fiber-optic ring around the center of Bloomington. It connects the main city buildings as well as some schools. In fact, the city installed more fiber than then needed in order to make extra capacity available to private entities or for future projects, such as the one envisioned in the RFI.

Confidence and Optimism

With the RFI finally released, the idea as suggested by the BDU project, now moves one step closer to reality. As Mayor Hamilton reminded the audience at the beginning of the symposium in February:

“We do not have the digital network we need right now, and we certainly don't have the network we will need in 10 years. For 200 years, we've faced the future with confidence and optimism, and we should do the same now.”

Grass Will Be Greener With FairlawnGig In Ohio

Fairlawn, Ohio, a quaint little city in Northern Ohio, it is about to get a big Gig – lightning fast Internet speeds of up to one Gigabit (1000 Megabits) per second (Gbps) – for $75 a month. The city has considered the prospect of such a network since last year, and now the community is moving forward.

On April 4th, Fairlawn City Council unanimously approved several ordinances to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network (FTTH) called “FairlawnGig.” For financing, the network will use revenue bonds in an agreement with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

A New FTTH Muni

In November 2015, Fairlawn hired a consultant and envisioned a public-private partnership for the FTTH plan of FairlawnGig. Now, however, these ordinances ensure that the $10 million network that will begin construction in May 2016 will in fact be a municipal network. The ordinances enable the city to enter into a contract with a firm to design and construct the network in the way that best meets the community’s needs.

Currently, the prices are established as:

  • Residential 1 Gbps – $75
  • Residential 100 Mbps - $55
  • Residential 30 Mbps - $30

All speeds will be symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. The network will also offer phone service for an extra $25 a month. Businesses have similar speeds for prices between $90 and $500.

FairlawnGig will serve not only the 7,500 residents of Fairlawn, but it will also provide connectivity to the Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Joint Economic Development District. Ohio communities use these sort of districts to share infrastructure improvement projects.

From Vision to Reality

After thanking the City Council for passing the ordinances that have enabled the FTTH project, Fairlawn Mayor William J. Roth, Jr. further reiterated the purpose of the network:

“Our vision to make world-class, high-speed Internet services available to the residents and businesses of Fairlawn is now a reality. FairlawnGig will deliver a faster, better, and different Internet service from a trusted local provider, and will significantly aid in our efforts to promote economic development and commercial and residential growth in the City of Fairlawn.”

To learn more about the network and keep up to date on the project, check out FairLawnGig.net, the new network’s website.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

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.

This show is 35 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 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."

RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative

Publication Date: 
April 18, 2016
Author(s): 
Scott Carlson
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves. 

Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future. 

In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.  

Alaska Co-Op Upgrading to Fiber

It isn't very often we have the chance to share stories from the "Last Frontier," but a cooperative in the Valdez area is making news with a planned upgrade to fiber this summer.

DSL to Fiber

According to the Valdez Star, Copper Valley Telecom (CVT) subscribers will be enjoying a switch from old copper DSL Internet access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) when CVT upgrades its system. The new technology will also improve telephone service.

"Once complete, all voice and data will be delivered to the home over fiber optic line and the new electronic interface," CVT said. "Modems will also be replaced."

"There is no cost to the customer for the fiber installation," [CEO Dave] Dengel stated. "Customers will not be asked to pay for the new fiber or the electronics required for voice and Internet access."

Increasing Role of Co-Ops

CVT has served co-op members for more than 50 years with telephone service in the Valdez area and also serves the Copper River Valley and Cordova. Co-ops are bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas across the U.S. and we expect to see more upgrades as existing co-ops switch to fiber. Co-ops know that their future depends on the future of their members because they are members, too.

As CVT Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dengel, put it, "By upgrading our network from copper to fiber, Copper Valley Telecom is preparing the community for the future."

Three Communities Make Big Moves Toward Municipal Fiber Networks

A March article in Broadband Properties Magazine spotlights three communities around the country that are making progress toward creating municipal fiber networks. The City of Centennial, Colorado announced that they have completed a feasibility study and a Master Plan detailing the city’s plans to develop a network. Additionally, the Cities of Indianola, Iowa and Rancho Cucamonga, California announced that they have begun studying the feasibility of starting their own municipal fiber networks. 

Indianola, Iowa

Indianola, Iowa is a city of about 15,000 just 20 miles south of Des Moines. As we wrote a few years ago, Indianola currently owns an open access Fiber-to-the Premise (FTTP) network which provides Gigabit speed Internet access, plus TV, and phone service to most businesses and select residents in Indianola. The study they recently commissioned will explore the feasibility of using this existing network for constructing a FTTP network to the entire community. 

Indianola built its existing fiber network, which they launched in 2012, out of frustration as CenturyLink refused requests from the community to upgrade their DSL network and the incumbent Mediacom began overcharging for their Internet services. Today, Indianola Municipal Utilities is the infrastructure owner and a wholesale provider of this fiber network while Mahaska Communication Group, an Iowa-based Internet Service Provider (ISP), performs the operations and maintenance services for the network. 

Rancho Cucamonga, California

The City of Rancho Cucamonga, California recently asked a private consulting firm to perform a study to determine the feasibility of creating a fiber optic network. City officials see a municipal fiber network in this city of just over 170,000 as a potential driver of economic development. The city is located about 45 miles east of Los Angeles.

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Like Indianola, Rancho Cucamonga owns existing fiber-optic infrastructure. They city owns 25 miles of 96 strand fiber and 5 additional miles of vacant fiber conduit connecting to numerous municipal facilities. The city plans to first create a network for municipal buildings and businesses. Later, Rancho Cucamonga will integrate the network into the city’s traffic system and expand the network to serve residents.

Centennial, Colorado

The City of Centennial, Colorado released the results of a feasibility study and Master Plan in March. The study and plan detail a strategy to expand an existing 48-mile dark fiber infrastructure to create an open access network in this Denver suburb of 100,000.

The Master Plan calls for the city to spend $5.7 million to expand its existing fiber infrastructure and create a municipal fiber network that will provide vastly improved Internet access to all of the schools, libraries, local government and public safety organizations in Centennial. The city is also designing the network to run close to major business and residential areas and will have enough capacity to serve businesses and households. The city would serve as a wholesale provider and lease the network infrastructure on a non-exclusive basis to private ISPs that would provide retail services to subscribers. 

Centennial uses its 48-mile fiber infrastructure to facilitate operations of the city’s traffic signal equipment and to connect its government facilities to privately owned Internet networks. In 2013, Centennial residents voted overwhelmingly in support of a ballot question to reclaim local telecommunications authority that had been hijacked in 2005 when the state legislature passed SB 152. The voters’ 3:1 approval of that referendum opened the door to other possibilities for their publicly owned fiber.

Centennial’s Mayor Pro Tem C.J. Whelan, the chair of Centennial’s Fiber Steering Committee, described city’s vision for the network:

“This plan provides the roadmap for a future fiber-optic network infrastructure that will become a key resource of the city and ultimately enable Centennial to pursue improvements to public services and enhance economic development.”

City Councilwoman Stephanie Piko added.

“The city will now be in a position to partner with anchor agencies, such as school districts and public-safety agencies to offer better alternatives for their technology needs and improve their services to our residents.”

Legal Eagles: Ammon FTTH Can Fly As Planned

Ammon now has judicial confirmation to move ahead on their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project.

As we reported earlier this year, Ammon's Fiber Optic Department, led by IT Director Bruce Patterson, is on the verge of commencing the next phase of its incremental network deployment. Bruce explained to Chris in Episode #173 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, how the city will create a utility and residents who choose to participate will pay to have the network connected to their homes. The first area where FTTH will be deployed includes approximately 300 properties.

Innovative Participation Model

As Bruce put it:

"…[I]t seems logical that since fiber to your home raises your property value that we'd find some way to bond for that and put the payment for that bond as on assessment on your property tax because it does actually increase your property value so that's our goal. We do that with what they call a local improvement district."

Ammon intends to issue bonds that will then be paid with funds from assessments levied on the properties of those who wish to connect to the network. If a property owner wants to connect to the network, they will also become a "Utility Member" and will pay a monthly fee to use the service. Ammon's FTTH network will be open access; the city will not provide retail services but will maintain and operate the infrastructure. Residents will subscribe to the services offered by ISPs that operate over the network.

Ammon also intends to offer a low-cost option that will allow Utility Members to access basic functions, such as checking email, messaging, and file transfers without the need to subscribe to an ISP. Their plan will allow people in the community who cannot afford more advanced services to still have access to basic Internet tools.

In order to determine which neighborhoods want fiber, Ammon asks residents to sign up so they know where to aim the next build.

Sweet Validation

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As Ammon has developed their open access network from vision to achievement, they have taken several bold steps. The city won an award for its school emergency app, took over to connect local schools when the state educational network went dark, and experimented with partitioning fibers for multiple services. It's no surprise that Ammon's approach to financing was not typical.

As pioneers know, there can be something unexpected around the next tree. City officials chose to obtain validation from the state court prior to moving forward rather than risk investing time, money, and effort into an uncertain project.

On February 29th, District Judge Joel E. Tingey decreed that the city has the authority to construct, operate, and maintain the FTTH network under state law. He went on to state that their plan for financing under the Local Improvement District Act is authorized and that the bonds issued will be valid and enforceable.

Read the Judgement here and the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Decree here.

Onward And Upward For Ammon...And Others?

Now that the state court has determined that Ammon has the authority to enter into this venture with this model, perhaps other communities will feel more confident forging ahead. While this ruling applies only to Ammon, we hope it will help reinforce innovative thinking in the "Gem State."

BT Advisory Board and Community Agree: Local Is Best

As Burlington, Vermont, searches for a buyer for Burlington Telecom, the local residents and business owners continue to remain engaged in the future of their beloved Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Most recently, they made it clear that their first priority is finding a local company to own and operate the fiber network.

VT Digger reported that, according to a survey conducted by the BT Board of Advisors:

Several residents have said they would like to see Burlington Telecom sold to a locally owned co-operative and that their greatest concern is the utility being sold to one of its larger competitors such as Comcast, AT&T or FairPoint.

From the report:

Though the City is precluded by the terms of its settlement Agreement with Citibank from continuing to own the Asset, a carried equity interest is permitted. It is important that all ownership options be explored and considered in light of the legal requirements and the City’s goals for BT. However, the BTAB [Burlington Telecom Advisory Board] agrees with the vast majority of interested participants in this process that the sale of BT to one of its existing, national competitors would likely not be in the overall best interests of the City. 

At a recent meeting, David Provost, chair of the advisory board said, “The best option from our perspective is finding a buyer with ties to the local community that will allow the city to have a minority stake in Burlington Telecom."

A Troubled Past, An Uncertain Future

After years of cover-ups by the city's past leadership, CitiBank eventually sued Burlington for $33 million. The parties settled and, as part of the settlement, Burlington transferred ownership to Blue Water LLC, a company formed by Burlington businessman Trey Pecor. In exchange, Blue Water provided $6 million in bridge financing to allow the city to settle the lawsuit with Citibank. The city is still leasing the network temporarily but the ultimate goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. 

According to the terms of the settlement, Burlington can choose the new buyer but the sale must be finalized by January 2019. If not, Blue Water can choose the buyer and residents are worried it may end up being a company like Comcast, with no interest in the local community.

In December, as the BTAB wrapped up public meetings about the future of the network, VT Digger reported:

“We’ve heard very little to date about the $17 million,” Provost said, which is the amount of taxpayer money that was spent without authorization during Mayor Bob Kiss’ tenure to prop up Burlington Telecom. Provost said that’s come as a surprise, given the angry reaction from the public when that was revealed in 2009.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, participants weren’t evenly split on the issue. Most said they would like to see the city or residents retain some level of ownership in Burlington Telecom. One resident explained that, as a taxpayer, she would rather be able to use the asset than recoup the loss.

Residents Take Action

In late 2012, the Keep BT Local! Cooperative formed in an effort to maintain public ownership of the network. The co-op has been collecting equity and loan pledges with the long-term goal of obtaining approximately 4,000 residential and business membership pledges. The effort is ongoing and the group has said on their Facebook page that Members will be hearing more soon.

Sun Prairie Utilities' Pilot Project Shows Way to Better Connectivity

Welcome back to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. This town has brought to light the shocking stories of slack service from incumbent providers, the complicated decisions of community representatives, and the hopeful beginning of a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network

The City Council has just approved $16,000 to hire an engineering consultant for the estimated $27-35 million citywide plan. 

In the Pilot Project, So Much Demand!

In July 2015, City Council approved the $624,000 plan for the pilot project, but several factors brought the actual cost up to about $653,000. The pilot project area included the neighborhood Smith's Crossing, the Main Street Corridor, and the TIF District 9 area. 

Sun Prairie Utilities first slated the project for completion in early December, but that underwent several delays. For instance, an over-booked contractor started on the project a month later than expected. Meanwhile, rocky soil conditions and high-demand slowed the pace of construction while raising costs. The Sun Prairie Utilities Manager Rick Wicklund will present the final costs for the pilot project this month. 

The original budget had assumed a 30 percent take-rate that would see a positive cash flow in three years. In actuality, 54 percent of households in the pilot project area are requesting the services.

Forty-three percent have requested the 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.98 each month while 11 percent want the higher-speed service of 250 Mbps for $69.98 each month. The capital expenditure of these unexpected last mile connections brought the cost up, but the extra revenue from these connections will certainly help offset those costs. 

Pilot Project Teaches Lessons

In building the pilot project, the city council sought to learn if a municipal citywide FTTH network would be possible. With the overwhelming demand for Internet service in the pilot project area, a citywide network may be in the cards for this community of 29,000. 

The recently hired consultant will help determine the feasibility, while the city utility department will apply lessons from the pilot project. The city utility will continue to capitalize on their successes of the pilot project. Their outreach strategy worked very well, ensuring the high take rate, as Wicklund explained

“We did a really good job of marketing and contacting everyone, having neighborhood meeting and getting everyone excited about it, that has a lot to do with the high take rate.”