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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."

Webpass and Its Fixed Wireless Seek Fix for Landlord Abuses - Community Broadband Bits Episode 197

San Francisco is one of the rare cities that has multiple high quality ISPs competing for market share, though the vast majority of people still seem to be stuck choosing only between Comcast and AT&T. This week, we talk to a rising ISP, Webpass, about their success and challenges in expanding their model. Charles Barr is the President of Webpass and Lauren Saine is a policy advisor - both join us for episode 197 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Webpass model, which uses fixed wireless and fiber to serve high density apartment buildings where they are allowed in by the landlord. Unfortunately, they have been locked out of many of these buildings and are looking to the city of San Francisco to adopt better policies to ensure a single provider like AT&T cannot monopolize the building. Though the FCC has made exclusive arrangement unenforceable, the big providers are still finding ways to lock out competition.

We also talk a little about the role of fiber and fixed wireless technologies, chokepoints more generally, and why Webpass is so sure it could succeed if residents were all able to to choose the ISP they wanted.

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 27 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."

One Touch Make Ready and Wireless Innovation in Louisville - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 193

When we asked Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, Kentucky, to join us for episode 193 of the Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, we expected to talk about the one touch make ready policy they had enacted (and AT&T has since sued to stop). We did, but we ended with a focus on how networking is already improving the city.

We start off by focusing on the problem of adding new fiber networks to existing poles (many of which are owned by telephone company incumbents that are not particularly inclined to make life easy for new competitors). One touch make ready simplifies the process, resulting in many benefits for communities in addition to lowering the cost to build new networks. We explore that topic to start.

But at the end of the discussion, Ted and I discuss what Susan Crawford has termed a responsive city approach - Louisville is using all kinds of network attached devices to improve city services in some of the lowest income neighborhoods.

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 26 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."

The FCC's Pro-Competition Agenda - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 192

This week we welcome Gigi Sohn, Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, to Community Broadband Bits for episode 192. Before joining the FCC, Gigi was a founder of Public Knowledge.

Gigi discusses the pro-competition agenda that Chairman Wheeler has advanced, including the efforts to ensure communities can decide locally whether to build a municipal network or partner. We also discuss other elements of FCC action to encourage competition in the Internet access market, even how television set-top boxes fit in.

Echoing some of the comments I regularly hear from some thoughtful listeners, I asked if competition was the best approach given the argument that telecom, and particularly fiber, has the characteristics of a natural monopoly.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 15 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."

Madison, Wisconsin Pilot: Fiber In The Fall

Four low-income neighborhoods in Madison will soon have access to fast, reliable, affordable Internet access, thanks to a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) pilot program.

Fast, Affordable, Reliable...Soon!

According to a recent Cap Times article, installation will begin in the spring of 2016; community leaders anticipate the network will start serving residents in the fall. The cost of the pilot is estimated at $512,000. The original plan was to offer the pilot in two areas, but in the City Council recently approved an amendment to the city budget to cover the cost of expanding the pilot. Funds for the construction will come from the city's capital budget.

When the city first released its RFP, it received 3 proposals. Ultimately, the city selection committee chose the only FTTH proposal over two wireless proposals, citing reliability and speed as determining factors. Local Internet service provider ResTech will build the network, which will be owned by the city. Residential subscribers will have access to a minimum 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload (symmetrical) service for $9.99 per month. There will be no data caps.

Testing the Waters

The Cap Times reports that the results of the pilot will determine the next steps for the city, population 243,000, which has flirted with the idea of a citywide municipal network in the past:

In conjunction with the pilot, Madison will be pursuing a feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to expand the Internet service to other parts of the city in the future.

The city is working with Columbia Telecommunications Corporation for the feasibility study component as a parallel track to the pilot.

The pilot will be two years, and [Chief Information Officer Paul] Kronberger said they hope to have enough data to do the cost-benefit analysis after about one year of operation.

SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown, USA

Publication Date: 
November 9, 2015
Author(s): 
Hannah Trostle
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Many of the most beautiful communities in the United States are in remote areas where incumbent cable and telephone companies have decided not to offer modern, high-quality Internet connectivity. Sandy, Oregon, is one of them. Some 10,000 people live there among the lush green forests and beautiful vistas of the “Gateway to Mount Hood,” 25 miles east of Portland. But Sandy decided to build its own gigabit fiber optic system and now has one of the most advanced, affordable networks in the nation.

A new report by The Institute for Local Self-Reliance details the rise of SandyNet, Sandy's publicly owned high-speed Internet service. "SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown USA" charts the growth of this community network.

Sandy, Oregon joined nearly 100 other local governments that have municipal fiber-to-the-home networks to give residents and businesses access to world-class Internet connections. However, the overwhelming majority of municipal fiber networks were built by local governments that already owned their local electrical grids. As Sandy does not have a municipal electric utility, it pioneered a low-risk incremental strategy to build its telecommunications utility, SandyNet.

The city started by reselling DSL and building a modest wireless network. Now it offers symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps for $39.95 or 1 Gbps for $59.95. Sandy’s experience offers lessons for local governments across the country.   

Click here to read and download the full report.

Click here to watch our short documentary about the Network:

Gig City Sandy: Home of the $60 Gig

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.

wireless-icon.jpg

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.

RS Fiber Cooperative Breaks Ground

Six years after an initial feasibility study was conducted to assess bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in southeastern Minnesota, members of the RS Fiber Cooperative board were finally able to dust off their shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9. Although those shovels may have ended up being more symbolic than they were practical, the ceremony marked an important and long-awaited step in the fight to extend broadband to 10 cities and 17 rural townships across the largely agricultural region.

The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of stage one of a two-stage project that will take five to six years to complete. By the end of 2015, the RS (Renville-Sibley) Fiber Cooperative plans to connect 1,600 homes and businesses with fiber, with 90 percent of its service area covered by high-speed wireless. It hopes to connect another 2,600 homes and businesses by the end of 2016, with the eventual goal of reaching 6,200 potential customers. At the event, Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, highlighted the importance of broadband Internet to rural development:

This technology is to this generation what rural electric and rural telephone was to generations years ago.

The RS Fiber Cooperative is member-owned and member-driven, led by a Joint Powers Board that formed in 2009. In order to provide FTTH to the rural locations across the two counties, the cooperative partnered with a network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that already serves 17 communities in southeast Minnesota. RS Fiber will offer residential Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit for $129.95. It will also connect schools, bolster home and farm security systems, and even facilitate high school sports broadcasts and telemedicine initiatives.

The local governments each sold a General Obligation Tax Abatement Bond that in aggregate totalled $15 million that was loaned to the cooperative, which helped offset the cost of the initial phase of construction. It was a seed that allowed the coop to gather the rest of the necessary funding. The project’s overall funding includes both bonds and commercial loans from community banks.

Community Broadband Networks has followed the RS Fiber project closely as it jumped through several hurdles to create a financially sustainable plan to provide both urban and rural residents FTTH and fiber-to-the-farm services, respectively. ILSR highlighted the cooperative in its 2014 report - All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Chris also interviewed Co-op Vice Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson last May in a Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Board members, according to a recent Gov Tech article, are hopeful that an osteopathic medical school that is coming to Gaylord will use the cooperative’s service.

Bringing broadband to rural communities like the ones in Renville and Sibley counties is critical to the future of the region. Without proper Internet access companies will not think of relocating to the area and when young generations leave, they will leave for good. As Vice Chair Gerholz told Chris:

One of the things that I'm looking at, too, for this whole project is that hopefully it will expand companies, and make invitations to companies, to come to this area. Which will then give more jobs for our kids, and keep our kids at home. Because we lose our kids. They go to college, and they're gone.

Enhanced broadband capacities will give those kids reason to stay, and make the region - which has experienced a steady population decline since the 1970s - economically competitive once again.

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."