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Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”

Local Media Loves Opelika Gigabit Fiber Network

We love when community networks are celebrated for their accomplishments and potential. Opelika, Alabama, started to build a network in 2010, and now local news proudly showcases the community as a Gig City.

The Fiber-to-the-Home network in Opelika turned out to be a great investment for the community. After five years of work and $43 million, the network now boasts 3,000 customers. With such incredible high-speed Internet access, Opelika hopes to attract new businesses and encourage young people to stay. For more of the history of the network, check out our interview with Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller in Episode 40 of Broadband Bits.

Local News Celebrates Opelika’s Network

Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

Solon Set to Save in Ohio: Big Plans for I-Net

Solon, located in Ohio's northeast corner, is looking to save approximately $65,280 per year with a publicly owned fiber institutional network (I-Net). At the January 19 city council, an ordinance authorizing the Director of Finance to request bids for the project passed unanimously

Cleveland.com recently reported that the city council is considering ditching its contract with Time Warner Cable as the city moves forward with a traffic signal project. The project would require streets to be excavated all over the community, a perfect time to install fiber connecting 8 municipal facilities. The publicly-owned network will connect buildings such as the Solon Senior Center, the Solon Community Center, and three city fire stations. The traffic signal project will cost $5 million and is funded in a large part by a combination of state and federal grants with the city contributing approximately twenty percent of the total cost.

The city will also pay for the I-Net project, an additional $160,000 but will recoup its investment in less than 3 years through savings on telecommunications costs. The city has paid Time Warner Cable to connect the municipal facilities via fiber and provide Internet access since 1990. Solon currently pays $5,440 per month. 

The city's water reclamation plant will not be connected to the new I-Net and will still use the incumbent because, due to its location, extending to the plant would cost another $100,000. The city will continue to pay Time Warner Cable $500 per month to connect the plant.

Work on the project could begin this spring.

Missouri Legislature Off to Another Anti-Muni Session: Pick Up Your Phone and Call!

If you pay attention to state laws affecting municipal networks in Missouri, you are experiencing an unsettling feeling of deja vu right now. On January 7, Representative Lyndall Fraker introduced HB 2078, a bill much like last year's Senate anti-muni bill. Fraker is Chair of the House Utility Infrastructure Committee, where  the bill is now awaiting a hearing, so it has a good chance of being heard sooner rather than later. 

Your Phone Call Required! 

Time to call Members of the Committee, especially if any of them represent you, and let them know that you expect them to vote against this bill. It is anti-competitive, opposed to local authority, and prevents new investment. Bad bill! 

Preventing Partnerships to Maintain The Status Quo

This bill would not only make it extremely difficult for local communities to invest in publicly owned Internet networks, but would complicate and delay public-private partnerships. A number of communities across the country already own infrastructure and are exploring ways to partner with private providers who want to use it to serve schools, businesses, and residents. If a community wants to lower telecommunications costs or obtain better services, this legislation would have them first jump through a series of obscure, expensive, and cryptic hoops. This legislation creates barriers that serve no purpose except to erect hurdles that discourage local communities from finding better providers.

The requirements in HB 2078 and its companion bill SB 946 are clearly intended to limit competition - to maintain the existing de facto monopolies and duopolies within Missouri. As we have seen in places like Westminster, Rockport, and in Missouri's North Kansas City, partnerships are filling a gap in places where incumbents don't feel justified investing or communities are not ready for their own high-quality Internet networks. A key benefit to allowing partnerships is the establishment of competition in areas where there is only one provider who has no reason to work to please its subscribers.

According to HB 2078, before a community can even consider offering any type of service:

"...the competitive service is not being offered to fifty percent of the addresses by any combination of service providers within the boundaries of such city, town, or village."

In other words, existing de facto monopoly status in places where there is only one provider can be easily preserved by the Missouri State Legislature if this piece of legislation passes.

State Lawmakers Impose Their Will On Local Decisions

The bill also dictates specific criteria for feasibility reports, waiting periods, and fiscal impacts. HB 2078 directs the city on specific loan requirements, limits borrowing to $500,000, and dictates interest terms. Along with other restrictions, the bill shackles local governments to the point where investing in better infrastructure is not practical.

Give the Locals What They Want!

Once again, state lawmakers are stepping over the line when they should be stepping back from it. Missouri has existing barriers that discourage publicly owned networks and negatively impact rural communities overlooked by large corporate providers. Rather than perpetuate this harmful state of affairs, state lawmakers should look to the future, strike down the state's existing barriers, and give local communities full authority to decide their own connectivity future.

Hanover, New Hampshire, Taps New State Law for Network

The town of Hanover, New Hampshire (pop. 11,500), is considering building its own municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network following the enactment of a new state law that makes it easier for communities to take on such projects.

Under the new state law (Chapter 240, HB486-Final Version), New Hampshire towns and cities can now establish special assessment districts to finance telecommunications infrastructure, expanding a long-standing statute. Specifically, the law now includes “communication infrastructure” as among the types of “public facilities” for which a special assessment district can be formed.

Under the expanded law, communities can finance fiber optic networks by billing individuals who reside within the district for a prorated share of the cost of installing that communication infrastructure.

Prospects for Fiber Raised

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin told our Chris Mitchell in a recent podcast of Community Broadband Bits:

“For the first time I think there is a role here for a municipal entity to help ensure that fiber is installed and that homeowners and businesses have an opportunity to connect to that network."

...

“Prior to this we've been able to create districts for water and sewer and sidewalks and street lights and even for downtown maintenance; but never for communication infrastructure. Nor has the statutes that have been on the books for years, been as expansive as this one is in terms of laying out just how we make these assessment districts work.”

Since New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the special assessment districts measure into law last July, Hanover has started looking into building a municipal network. It is in the process of finalizing a contract with Wide Open Networks to perform the cost analysis and system network design.

Hanover Explores Building Fiber Network 

“We will likely have a completed design by late March at the latest,” Griffin told us. “We have asked them (Wide Open Networks) to develop cost estimates, recommend options of undergrounding the fiber and develop an implementation plan.”

Griffin adds:

“Ideally, Hanover employees would do all of the ditching and conduit installation which will save us the labor costs and avoid the pole attachment fiascos that tend to dominate the New Hampshire landscape.  We would then contract with FastRoads to install the fiber and property connections.  We could, potentially, coordinate with the town to our north, Lyme, New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire FastRoads, of which Hanover is a participating community, is a collaboration of the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., the 34 towns of the Monadnock region, and WCNH.net, the eight towns of the Upper Valley–Lake Sunapee region. Its goal is to help ensure that the businesses, institutions, and residents of the region have the right infrastructure to support jobs and sustainable economic development, including fast, affordable, reliable telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. Griffin told us that Hanover envisions its fiber optic network would be open access

“We're really looking for how we can do this feasibly, economically for our residents in terms of making it as affordable as possible, but also streamlining the process by doing it ourselves in our own right of way. I'm looking forward to creating a working model that we hope other New Hampshire communities are going to be able to take hold of and run with it.”

New Law Long Time Coming 

Griffin, a member of the FastRoads board, says she was among people in New Hampshire who has been pushing for a change in state law for more than the past 10 years.

“We hear from our residents how important it is that they have robust Internet access, and, yet, as a municipality we're not enabled to invest in helping to bring that infrastructure to our region.” 

The new state law is a significant change for New Hampshire communities since the local governments have been very limited in how they can use public financing to invest in Internet networks. Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against publicly owned networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has limited local communities’ ability ensure high quality Internet access.

Griffin noted New Hampshire has technically allowed bonding under a statute that's been on the books for years:

“But it’s so impossible to implement because the telecommunication companies essentially made sure that it's ground rules are so onerous that it's virtually impossible for any municipality to take advantage of it."

Hanover borders Vermont. Although largely a rural community, the town is also home to Dartmouth College, a regional medical center, and numerous restaurants, shopping, and theater that make it an attractive draw for visitors and tourists.

Currently, about 50 percent of Hanover residents have Comcast or Fairpoint DSL, Griffin says, noting, “Both are OK but still have their limitations in today’s  streaming world.”

Meanwhile, the remaining 50 percent of town residents have no “high speed Internet service other than satellite which is expensive and really unreliable,” Griffin notes. “Many in-town customers would like faster Internet speeds while our outlying rural residents would settle for just about anything.”

Griffin explains, “We’re a community that is very heavily dependent on the Internet.”

Full Speed (and Price List) Ahead for the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority

After a rocky start and a long period of transition, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority in Virginia is preparing for the years ahead. Hoping to snag schools, hospitals, government offices, and Internet carriers with their prices, the Broadband Authority just released its proposed rate structure. 

They expect to complete construction of five major sections of the fiber network by early March. Starting in mid-April, customers will have service. The proposed rates are as follows:

  • Dark Fiber: $40-$100 per strand mile depending on whether the institution is a nonprofit
  • Transport Service (requires a 2 year term): speeds between 10 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) - 200 Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) for $350 - $4,510 
  • Dedicated Internet Service (requires a 2 year term): 10Mbps - 1Gbps for $550 - $5,687 

The full preliminary proposed rate structure [PDF] is available from the Broadband Authority’s website.

The Authority will hold a public hearing on Friday, March 18 at 8:30 a.m. on the rate structure. After the public hearing, the board may request to adopt the preliminary proposed rates. Local news has the rest:

Grassroots Springing Up In Holyoke, Massachusetts

For years, the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, has built up a treasure trove of fiber that the municipal buildings [and some businesses] use to connect to the Internet. Now, some residents want to share in the bounty. The newly-formed Holyoke Fiber Optic Group plans to drum up grassroot support for a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project to bring high-speed Internet to the 40,000 residents of Holyoke. 

The group recently spoke with members of the city utility and are now on their way to the mayor's office in an effort to bring better connectivity to the city. The meeting with the mayor's office is scheduled for next Tuesday. The Holyoke Fiber Optic Group aims to form an exploratory committee of community stakeholders to dive into the possibility of a FTTH project.

Grassroots Effort

The group formed in November of 2015 and hosted its first meeting in early December. Members highlighted their frustration with the lack of access to high-speed Internet and pointed to the April 1999 Master Plan for the city. It specifically stated the need to capitalize on the fiber available.

Organizers maintain a Facebook group to discuss the issue in Holyoke and the latest developments in high-speed Internet. They call for an open access network to encourage competition and enable residents to pick their own service provider. The group now has over 200 members.

The group recently spoke with the manager of the city utility, Holyoke Gas & Electric. It maintains the fiber and provides telecommunication services to municipal buildings and other nearby towns. The city utility’s efforts to better connect communities was highlighted in a recent report from the Berkman Center (for more info check out our podcast interview with [David Talbot], a Fellow at the Berkman Center). On January 4th, the Holyoke Gas & Electric manager unexpectedly attended the group's meeting and explained how the city utility is continually considering this idea.

An Often Considered Possibility

Holyoke Gas & Electric has been contemplating the idea of a FTTH project for quite sometime. In our Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2013, Chris discussed the possibility with Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas:

"That's something that we have looked at for a long time here, Chris.  We've looked extensively at it for the past ten years, three different times -- probably every three years -- in depth.  And what the cost structure would be.  And it's one of those things where if we're going to deliver a service like that, to residences, it's -- well, we really have to deliver it to everyone.  And we've struggled with the return on investment of delivering fiber-to-the-home, and how we manage those services being delivered to the customer."

The Holyoke Fiber Optic Group, however, thinks that it’s now the right time to pursue FTTH. An organizer, Peter Palombella, explained in an email Wednesday to MassLive

“The Holyoke Fiber Optic group feels the city is ready to start exploring this issue and we hope to meet with Jim Lavelle [Holyoke Gas & Electric Manager] sometime in January to discuss forming an exploratory committee. … Not a full broadband committee with the power of a city agency, but a committee to explore the issue, in stages, with members from different stakeholder groups in the city."

Back in 2013, Senior Network Engineer Haas did say that Holyoke Gas & Electric has considered expanding to FTTH just about every three years. If the Holyoke Fiber Optic Group is right, perhaps 2016 will be the year for fiber to come to the homes of Holyoke.

Local Governments and Internet Access Debate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 185

For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are trying a discussion/debate format between myself, Christopher Mitchell, and Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We have debated previously and prefer a style of seeking to flesh out the argument rather than merely trying to win it.

We start by discussing the role of incumbents in limiting competition and what might be done about it. Next we move to bandwidth caps. On both of those points, we have pretty significant disagreement.

We finish by discussing the role of conduit and poles, where we have some agreement. If you like this show, please do let us know and we'll try to have more in this style.

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 22 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Reedsburg Utility Commission Receives State Grant for Expansion

In April 2015, Wisconsin's Brett Schuppner from the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) had a conversation with Chris about the utility's plan to expand the municipal fiber network. Funding is one of the biggest challenges but in December, the RUC learned that it a state grant will help move those plans forward.

WisNews recently reported that the RUC applied for $110,000 to bring the triple-play fiber network to Buckhorn Lake in Sauk County. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced on December 11th that the RUC will instead receive $69,300 which will allow the network to extend to an additional 105 homes and 40 properties. From the article:

Schuppner said an informal survey of members of the Buckhorn Property Owners’ Association suggests the utility commission will likely recover its out-of-pocket costs for the project not covered by the grant of about $40,000 from new users in the first year.

RUC began serving the community in 2003, expanding in 2011, and offering gigabit service in 2014. The community is located about 55 miles northwest of Madison and home to approximately 10,000 people.

Ten other entities across the state also received grants. RUC anticipates construction to begin on this expansion early this year.