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Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

In New England, Greenfield Votes For a Municipal Network Too

It wasn’t just Colorado cities and counties along with Iowa communities voting this week. Back east, Greenfield, Massachusetts also rushed to the polls to support local Internet choice.

Greenfield is planning to use a combination of fiber and Wi-Fi to deliver services - an approach that has had limited success in the past due to the technical limitations of Wi-Fi. 

The Vote

At Tuesday’s Annual Meeting, residents voted on the future of high-speed Internet access in the town. The referendum, the first step in creating a municipal broadband network, saw a landslide victory. 

The people gave a resounding message that they wanted to pursue a network: 3,287 people voted in favor; only 696 were opposed. According to the local paper the Recorder, this nonbinding ballot referendum allows the town to create a nonprofit to run the municipal broadband network. 

Currently there is a pilot program on two streets – giving residents a taste of community-owned high-speed Internet. This pilot program started in mid-October and provides free Wi-Fi on Main and High Streets. If voters had rejected the ballot referendum, the town would have ended the pilot program and only created an institutional network for the municipal and school buildings. Now, with the referendum passed, they can implement the plan for high-speed Internet access.

The Plan for Broadband

When the state built a middle-mile network running through the cities of Greenfield and Holyoke, the mayor contacted Holyoke’s municipal light plant to find out how to best utilize the opportunity. Holyoke is now the Internet Service Provider for City Hall and the police station. These will then serve as Internet access nodes for Greenfield’s new network.

The community's goal is to construct a 60-mile hybrid fiber-wireless network throughout the entire town by the end of 2016. The network will have a 10 Gigabit-per-second fiber backbone.  Now that the referendum passed, the project will go out to bid and construction will begin in early January. The total cost is estimated at about $5 million – the town intends to use revenues from the network to pay for the construction.

In an October, Mayor Martin described the community's initiative to replace the old infrastructure the community now relies on:

Martin said the goal of the project is to improve the business climate and quality of life in Greenfield. He said he wants everyone who wants high-speed Internet to be able to afford it.

We have yet to see a robust Wi-Fi network that actually sees meaningful adoption by households because the technology has such limited range and variable reliability. The result is that very few people are willing to pay for Wi-Fi connectivity, especially as they have come to expect higher capacity connections than a shared Wi-Fi network can deliver. We will be watching to see how Greenfield develops.

MuniWireless Works in Lompoc…Just The Way They Like It

The early 2000s created a boom of both public and private wireless projects throughout the U.S., but many struggled with unrealistic expectations and flopped. Successful muni wireless networks transformed themselves, adapting to the changing needs of the communities. Some, such as Sandy, Oregon, have transitioned to Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) networks where the high-speed fiber-optic cable is hooked up directly to the home. Others repurposed their networks to provide other needed services -- like in Lompoc, California.

Lompoc transformed its $4 million muniwireless network, LompocNet, into a full-fledged Broadband Utility. Originally, the city council hatched the idea of a subscriber-based Wi-Fi network, but times changed quickly. Now, the Broadband Utility primarily provides much-needed internal connectivity for city services.

New Role: City Services

In this small city of about 42,000 people, the Broadband Utility operates a Wide Area Network (WAN) for municipal services. The electric and water utilities use the network for their smart-meters, which automatically provide usage information to the city utilities. Police video cameras transmit their feeds across the service, improving public safety. The Broadband Utility also provides the city’s phone and data services, and and has begun to connect some municipal buildings with fiber-optic cable. The Broadband Utility’s role has increased in importance; Lompoc’s franchise agreement with Comcast expired at the end of 2014, so now the Broadband Utility is beginning to function as an Institutional Network, connecting public buildings.

Lompoc’s approach to broadband may seem inverted to those used to the concept of incremental build-outs, but it worked for the city. In an incremental build-out, a small section of the network is built for a specific purpose and the revenues from that section pay for the next expansion. Lompoc decided to do the opposite: blanket the city completely and immediately with low-cost Internet access via Wi-Fi.

From Being a Flop to Being On Top

More than 10 years ago, in 2002, Lompoc faced a common, but frustrating problem – Comcast’s services. Comcast was slowly rolling out DSL in the community, but the cost of cable TV services still seemed too high to the city council. The Mayor Pro Tem at the time, DeWayne Holmdahl, traveled to Florida with the city manager to a municipal broadband conference to explore solutions. Inspired by the stories at the conference, they returned with an idea: a municipal utility for cable and Internet services.


The City Council agreed to look into the matter and hired a consultant to perform a study[PDF] in 2003. The options:

  1. Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, financed through bonds, with a capital cost of $26.5 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)
  2. Wi-Fi mesh network, financed through a loan from the municipal Electric Utility to be repaid with revenue funds from the network, with a capital cost of $1 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)

The FTTH project would be city-wide and include triple-play: phone, TV, and Internet. The Wi-Fi plan would blanket the city with affordable basic Internet access. According to Holdmahl, the city council recognized that the FTTH project would be too costly. Although a Wi-Fi network could not provide triple-play services, the network could still serve residents.

Technical problems delayed the network from taking off with residential users, and the network languished until the end of 2007. Then Richard Gracyk came on as Broadband Services Administrator changing the network’s technical management system. The number of subscribers quickly leapt to about 1,000 and plateaued.

After the city spent $4 million to construct, operate, and maintain the network, the project was declared 'revenue neutral' in 2012, and LompocNet could begin to recoup its investment. Generating revenue from the network now looked promising.

Residential Users: Cord Cutters and the Digital Divide

Although the Broadband Utility has started to focus more on city services, the residential program is still robust. The network has about a 1,000 customers a month - LompocNet does not use the term "subscribers." The residential Wi-Fi requires no contract. The Internet bill is added to their city utility account - an easy, all-in-one payment. People are not locked into the service, but have the option to use it as needed. 

The services they offer have expanded since the early days of the network. The technology has grown more extensive as the Broadband Utility uses a blended network of different equipment and providers. Offering three tiers for residential users (ranging from $15.99 - $35.99) and base-level packages for visitors (from $4.99 - $9.99), the network appeals to cord-cutters (people who want to move away from subscriptions) and lower income people, priced out by other Internet services.

Former Mayor Pro Tem, and current city councilmember, Holmdahl explained that he has been a loyal customer of the Broadband Utility since its inception. He uses it for both his home and for his business as a travelling notary, saying “it works just the way we like to have it work.” That’s the key to any successful program: it works just the way the community likes it to work.

After Gutting the Gulf, BP Funds Pave Path to Better Broadband

Communities along Mississippi's Gulf coast have recently suffered through disasters both natural and not, from Hurricane Katrina to BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout and aftermath. But they are investing some of the relief funds into infrastructure of the future to help recover. 

Biloxi and Gulfport city officials recently passed resolutions approving an intergovernmental agreement to bring better connectivity to Mississippi Coastal communities. The vote was the next step in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Fiber Ring initiative announced this summer by Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich to encourage municipal networks in the region.

The agreement will establish the Gulf Coast Broadband Commission, a public utility  charged with deploying, operating, and maintaining a fiber optic network in and between the two cities. The agreement also specifically grants the Commission the ability to seek out financing to perform its function. Other municipalities and counties can join the agreement as members after the Commission is established.

If other local governments want to participate, they must agree to minimum standards for expansion. Members must promise to offer symmetrical gigabit connectivity, commit to serve every residence and business within a community within 7 years of joining, agree to offer free public Wi-Fi, and require ISPs using the infrastructure to have a local customer service presence. The agreement requires state approval before it is finalized.

In July, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant pledged $15 million to the project from the fund created by the Restore Act. The Act establishes how the state will disburse $2.2 billion paid by British Petroleum as fines for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Biloxi settled with BP in a separate suit, accepting approximately $5 million and is considering directing at least some of those funds toward municipal fiber deployment.

In addition to Deepwater Horizon, the area never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. The region has lost thousands of jobs since 2008 and local officials hope improved connectivity will help bring a new economy to the Coast.

Newly elected Biloxi mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich says strong broadband capabilities are critical for bringing in new development.

"What's your bandwidth? That's one of the first things people ask," he says. "If I'm going to put 10 jobs here, support jobs or even R&D jobs, it's very important."

Chicago Alderman Advocates Public Fiber For Municipal Savings

At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.

Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government elimnated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.

“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”

Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.

The city is trying to find ways to generate revenue amidst a major $30 billion employee pension crisis that led Moody’s to downgrade the city’s bond rating to junk status in May.

One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.

DC-Net Delivers Public Savings

Washington, DC, continues to operate an incredibly successful municipal network. Created in 2007, the municipal government’s 57-mile fiber optic network, DC-Net, provides connectivity to government buildings and community anchor institutions that are health or education based. DC-Net started providing public Wi-Fi hotspots in 2010. We covered some of the savings of DC-Net itself in our 2010 report, and we recently found a report from 2012 that details an example of public savings from the network.

In 2008, the Office of Personnel Management in D.C. needed to replace its aging phone system with state-of-the-art Voice over IP and a video conference system. These two telecommunication systems require a high capacity network. After a market analysis found that prospective vendors would cost more than the budget could handle, they had to find an alternative solution. That’s when they connected with DC-Net. The network kept costs down - the initial cost-savings from the project were about $500,000. 

DC-Net also provided more than Office of Personnel Management had originally anticipated: redundancy, more connectivity, and better coverage. With the added redundancy, the phone and Internet have had less outages. DC-Net then provided gigabit ethernet to the headquarters and Wi-Fi coverage. 

The total cost savings for the Office of Personnel Management over the first 6 year period (from 2008 to 2014) are estimated at $9.25 million. They came in at budget with more connectivity than they had anticipated by using a municipal network that was committed to meeting their needs. Sounds like a good deal to us.

Albany, NY Proposes Feasibility Study for Municipal Broadband Service

In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.

According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:

“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”

This news out of Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, comes as major gaps persist in high speed broadband access in many parts of the state. FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625K state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide

At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.

Dark Fiber Network Saving Money, Generating Revenue in Burbank

ONE Burbank, the dark fiber network that has provided connectivity for studios since 1997, is bringing a number of benefits to Burbank schools and taxpayers, reports the Burbank Leader. The network is saving public dollars, generating revenue, and providing better connectivity to schools and public facilities.

Five years ago, we reported on Burbank's asset and its primary customers - Hollywood studios. That trend has continued but now the network generates even more revenue. As a result, all electric customers served by Burbank Water and Power save with lower utility bills:

Last year, ONE Burbank generated $3.4 million in revenues for the utility, [General Manager Ron] Davis said in May. That’s compared to roughly $205,000 in 1997 and about $1.5 million five years ago, according to data Davis presented to the City Council.

“The bulk of that [$3.4 million] is all margin and helps keep electric rates down,” Davis said. “[We do] basically zero marketing and collect that margin.”

By connecting city facilities rather than leasing from a private provider, Burbank has all but eliminated past telecommunications expenses, lowering costs by 95% and saving, $480,000 in total thusfar. The school district has saved $330,000 since connecting to ONE Burbank.

ONE Burbank is also providing four times as much bandwidth to the school at a much lower rate that it once paid to the private sector, cutting its costs from $18,000 per year to $9,000 per year.

In August, Burbank Water and Power began using the dark fiber network as backhaul for free Wi-Fi service available throughout the city. There is no service level guarantee but it is open to any device:

“It’s just out there if you can get it,” Ron Davis, the utility’s general manager, told the City Council last week.

The dark fiber has helped retain and attract business, reports city leaders, and they want to continue the current trajectory to bring in high-tech companies and turn Burbank into a "Silicon Beach."

Louis Talamantes, president of Buddy’s All Stars, said his business has been using the service for about 18 months. While it’s more expensive than the prior service provider, he said, it makes up for it in reliability. The Internet would go down three or four times a month, sometimes for half a day, with his previous provider.

Though he was skeptical at first, Talamantes said the service “delivered” and he’s had no downtime with ONE Burbank, allowing him to keep his 24 employees productive, and it’s helped keep up morale.

Newark, Delaware Considers Municipal Fiber Feasibility Study

The City of Newark, population 30,000 and home to the University of Delaware, is considering commissioning a feasibility study but first will host a workshop to discuss the potential of a municipal network. City leaders want to bring together members of the community, broadband providers, experts, and municipal employees before it commits to the $10,000 study. 

Residents spoke at a recent city council meeting, demanding that the City inquire into the potential for a municipal broadband network, reported Delaware’s News Journal. Community interest led City Information Technology manager Josh Brechbuehl to research the City’s pre-existing Internet infrastructure, as well as speak with a wide array of broadband experts. Brechbuehl delivered a presentation to the city council on July 27 (transcript of the council meeting minutes here), during which he laid out his vision for bringing high-speed Internet to Newark:

Admittedly I started off pretty pessimistic about the opportunity and the possibility of achieving something like this, and I will say that through my research, I’ve become somewhat of a believer, a cautious believer, but definitely a believer that says this should be investigated.

The City currently has access to a wireless mesh network, but Brechbuehl believes fiber would be a better investment in the long term:

“We do have a WiFi network. It is very, very slow and that is by design. It was never designed to handle active devices such as smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptop computers...It was designed to carry very, very tiny bits of information a few times a day and that’s it,” he told the council.

Along with the wireless mesh network, used primarily for a smart metering system, the City could tap into pre-existing privately owned fiber networks, Brechbuehl noted in his presentation. Building its own fiber network is another option that would ultimately give the City more flexibility and autonomy going forward. Another option for Newark would be to provide free municipal Wi-Fi in public areas, such as on Main Street and public parks. Brechbuehl and others also have their sights on a potential partnership with the University of Delaware, which currently provides free Internet to the municipality in government facilities.

Deploying a city-wide fiber network would catapult Newark into a select group of forward-thinking municipalities, Brechbuehl states:

Doing something like this puts us on a map with very few other cities nationwide that said we could get this done.

The Benefits of, Lessons From, SandyNet - Community Broadband Bits Episode 167

Two of the stars from our video on SandyNet in Oregon, join us this week for Community Broadband Bits episode 167. Sandy City Council President Jeremy Pietzold and IT Director Joe Knapp (also SandyNet General Manager) tell us more about the network and recent developments as they finish connecting the majority of the City to gigabit fiber.

We talk about the challenges and lessons learned along the way as they transitioned from running a Wi-Fi network in some areas of town to all areas of town to overbuilding the wireless with fiber optics.

Jeremy also discusses more of a story we recently reported on SandyNet's business services, which are the lowest cost, highest capacity deals we have seen.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 30 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."