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"Digital New England" Conference Set for September 27th, 28th in Portland

Over the past year, New England has been a hotspot for broadband initiatives, legislation, and experimentation. The trend will continue into September when Next Century Cities and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) host Digital New England: A Summit for Regional Broadband Leaders on September 27th and 28th in Portland, Maine.

From a description of the event:

Broadband is emerging as a critical driver of economic growth and prosperity in New England. The “Digital New England” broadband summit will bring together state, local and federal officials, industry representatives, community leaders and other key stakeholders to share real-world broadband success stories and lessons learned from across the region. The summit will also examine the gaps that remain and strategize on what still needs to be done to expand access to and adoption of high-speed Internet services for the benefit of all citizens.

The event will start with a welcome reception on Sunday evening. Monday's day-long summit will include discussions on numerous topics that cover investment, access, and adoption. Come listen to some panel discussions and participate in some break-out workshops.

The welcome reception will be held at the Gulf Maine Research Institute at 350 Commercial St. in Portland. Monday's summit will be at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St. in Portland.

Take a look at the schedule for this free event and register online at the Eventbrite page.

KeepBTLocal Working on Plan to Purchase BT

Burlingtonians love their municipal network. We have reported in the past that, prior to the sale of the network to Blue Water LLC, a group of locals organized to create the KeepBTLocal cooperative. Recently, the organization reaffirmed its commitment to purchase the network when it goes up for sale, a condition of the Blue Water LLC transaction.

A customer satisfaction survey in April revealed that BT customers are more than twice as satisfied with their provider as those obtaining service from competitors. The VTDigger reported survey results:

· 87% customer satisfaction with BT’s Customer Service;

· 24% of customers chose BT’s services after being recommended by a friend or family member; and

· General impression of BT by non-BT customers saw a 10% “positive” increase over their 2014 impression.

The survey also reported that customers with other providers were 40% satisfied with their service.

BT offers 150 Mbps for $55 per month and gigabit service for $85 per month or $70 per month with a 12 month contract. All speeds are symmetrical.

It has been a long road for BT after prior city leadership covered up years' worth of cost overruns creating serious financial difficulties for the community. Eventually, CitiBank filed suit to recover the $33 million Burlington owed. The two settled and Burlington eventually transferred ownership to Blue Water with the city still leasing. The ultimate goal for the city is to sell the network. Enter KeepBTLocal.

According to a June VTDigger article, the coop has been working with a former telecommunications industry executive now working as a consultant. They are developing business and acquisition plans to purchase the network when it goes up for sale within the next few years.

Andy Mortoll, Chair of the Board of KeepBTLocal told VTDigger:

“It’s just so important for so many of us in Burlington to keep Burlington Telecom a local, community-owned asset,” Montroll said. “If the city is going to sell it, we want to be the ones to acquire it on behalf of the residents.”

Islesboro, Maine, Voters Approve First Round of Muni Funding

Islesboro residents voted on May 30th to move forward with their municipal network plan. According to the Islesboro Press Herald, approximately 75 percent of voters attending the annual town meeting approved a motion to spend $206,830 on an engineering study and contractor search. Approximately 200 residents attended.

As we reported in March, the community has been working since 2012 on a plan for a fiber network to improve connectivity for businesses and the almost 600 residents on the island. The infrastructure will belong to the Town of Isleboro; GWI will offer services via the network. The entire project estimate is $2.5 - $3 million to be funded with a municipal bond.

Many of the island's residents now obtain Internet access via DSL from Fairpoint, which has been described as spotty and unreliable, for $20 - $70 per month. GWI already operates on the island, offering wireless service.

This is the first in a several step approval process:

Town officials plan to hold a second public vote in the fall on 20-year municipal bond for up to $3 million that would fund the network’s construction, [Selectman Arch Gillies] said.

Completion is scheduled for the end of 2016.

“We’re a community intent on keeping up with the world, and maybe getting ahead of the world,” [Gilles] said.

Leverett Starts to Light Up in Massachusetts

The celebrated municipal network in Leverett, Massachusetts, is starting to serve select areas of the community. Customers' properties on the north side of town are now receiving 1 gigabit Internet service from the town's partner Crocker Communications. These early subscribers are considered "beta sites." Telephone service will become available when the network has been fully tested.

According to the press release:

The Town's initial plan was to turn on all subscriber locations at the same time; but interest from pre-subscribers was so strong that the Town's Broadband Committee arranged to offer sequential connections as individual homes are spliced into the network distribution cable. 

We learned about Leverett in 2012 as they explored the possibility of a municipal network. Lack of Internet access and problems with traditional phone service drove the community to take the initiative. Since then, they have been heralded as a model for self-reliance by the press, featured in case studies, and included in a white paper from the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisors.

LeverettNet subscribers pay a monthly $49.95 fee to the local Municipal Light Plant (MLP), the agency that maintains and operates the infrastructure. As more subscribers sign-up, that fee will decrease.

For stand-alone gigabit Internet access, subscribers pay an additional $24.95 per month. Stand-alone telephone service will be $29.95 per month. Those services will be $44.95 per month when bundled together.

A subscriber with bundled services of 1 gigabit symmetrical Internet access and telephone service pays a total of $94.90 per month, which includes the MLP fee. 

According to the press release, LeverettNet currently has 600 pre-subscribers, a take rate of 70%. Community leaders expect the network to be completed by August.

For more on Leverett, listen to the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #113, in which Chris interviewed Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Select Board and the Broadband Committee.

Islesboro, Maine, Will Vote to Bond for Municipal Network in May

Islesboro, the Maine island community of 566, will decide in May whether or not they want to bond to build a municipal fiber network, reports The Working Waterfront. The network will be owned by the town who plans to partner with GWI to operate and manage it. 

Currently, about 2/3 of residents on the island use DSL from Fairpoint. While a few locations can reach 15 Mbps download, most residents pay from $20 - $70 for around 3 Mbps download. Upload speeds are much less. GWI also offers point-to-point wireless from the mainland and one side of the island has cellphone.

The firm estimated costs to cover the island to be between $2.5 and $3 million, which would include construction and leasing of poles from Central Maine Power (CMP).  Community leaders will ask voters to approve a municipal bond to fund the project:

The $3 million bond would raise property taxes on a house assessed at $300,000 by about $13.77 per month ($164.25 per year). As a per-month cost, with both the pay-back on the bond and the standard service fee for Internet, the resident of a house valued at $300,000 would pay $48.77, according to [Arch] Gillies, [chairman of the Board of Selectmen]. (This appears to be for the lowest level of service.)

In 2012, the community formed a Broadband Working Group to dig deeper in to the state of broadband on the island and search for ways to improve it. The community hired a consultant to do an assessment and make recommendations. Traditional large scale providers do not find the community ripe for investment with its small number of households.

After reviewing the recommendations, community leaders decided it was in the community's best interest to deploy a network that would be owned by the public. They then engaged in a Request for Information process and received responses from three vendors. Eventually, they chose to work with GWI, in part because it is a local company. Fairpont and Time Warner Cable also responded, but their proposals did not stipulate that the infrastructure would belong to the town. There were other inferiorities in their proposals.

Community leaders have determined that they will need approximately 50% of the community to subscribe in order to cover the operating costs. They also hope that, with more subscribers, they can reduce the prices below the proposed rates. At this time, they anticipate offering service at $35 per month for 3 Mbps/1 Mbps, $75 per month for 500 Mbps symmetrical, and $125 per month for gigabit service. 

If voters approve the bond issue at the annual town meeting on May 9th, they will be asked to commit to a level of service in order to accurately assess the project's viability. If there is not a 50 percent commitment, the town may not proceed with the bond issue. If the bond is approved and sign-ups suggest a favorable future, construction would begin in the fall.

City Council Moves Forward on Muni Project in Ellsworth, Maine

The Ellsworth City Council voted on February 9th to proceed with the first steps to developing yet another municipal fiber network in Maine. Community leaders plan to develop open access fiber infrastructure. Five ISPs have already expressed an interest in working with the city to provide services via the network.

Ellsworth is home to approximately 7,500 people and is located along the south not far from the central coast.

The Ellsworth American reports that council members decided unanimously to lease a parcel of land on which to place a headend facility. The Ellsworth Business Development Corporation (EBDC), which also obtained a $250,000 grant to expand high-speed Internet in Ellsworth, will lease the property. The grant came from the Northern Border Regional Commission in 2014.

The Council also agreed to commit $28,445 in tax increment financing (TIF) funds toward the project. Those funds will be used for the headend building and to install a two mile stretch of fiber to tap into the community's abundant fiber resources. Community leaders want to create options for local businesses and the numerous home based businesses in Ellsworth.

“You have the superhighway already,” said Andy Hamilton, an attorney with Eaton Peabody who serves as legal counsel to EBDC. “But you need the off-ramp and the local roads to take you to the office buildings.”

Indeed, a report from Portland-based Tilson Technology Management said Ellsworth is located at “an information superhighway crossroads” and that it has a lot of fiber optic infrastructure — “more than most Maine communities.”

The network project is being developed in conjunction with a business incubator project in Ellsworth. Biotech and health science related businesses are abundant in the region and city leaders want to make the city attractive to the industry.

Council members are also considering the long term:

Lili Pew, a real estate agent who heads the EBDC broadband committee, pointed out many people have home-based jobs or businesses. She said the number one question she hears from her clients looking at Ellsworth is, “Do I have access to high-speed broadband?”

Running fiber lines to every residence in Ellsworth would be cost-prohibitive — in the range of $8 million to $12 million, according to Tilson — but there are other ways to reach parts of the city that Pew said are “in the black hole of technology right now.”

“This is more important to have in the city than natural gas, right now,” he said, referring to higher-speed Internet. “This is a utility that is really going to help us get ahead.”

Massachusetts Towns Consider WiredWest Opportunity

Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.

Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.

WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.

The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:

[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.

“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. ... The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.

“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.

“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”

Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.

The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.

As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.

A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.

The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.

Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden's alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:

A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.

“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.

Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:

“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. ... They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”

Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December [video below]:

James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”

ECFiber and ValleyNet Seek Managing Director

Recently, we reported that ECFiber in Vermont plans to expand in the near future. To fund that expansion, the consortium will seek out new, larger scale funding to meet the increased demand. ValleyNet, Inc., the company that manages the FTTH network for ECFiber is now searching for a Managing Director. The full posting is listed below and can be viewed at the NTCA Rural Broadband Association Job Center.

In keeping with the community goals of the network, we found value in this particular specification:

Community Foundation: In view of the above, the MD must fully appreciate and embrace the concept of a community-owned public utility and be able to relate successfully to:  the individual towns; their governing bodies (“Select Boards”); the ECFiber Governing Board and its members; and with the citizens themselves.  Although ECFiber is required by law and constitution to be entirely self-supporting and to “pay its own way”, it is not a purely “profit-maximizing” institution.  Balancing the needs of the community with the commercial discipline required to fund all its activities without resorting to taxpayer funding sources is a basic requirement of the MD’s position. 

ECFiber Continues to Grow; Plans to Expand in 2015

In early December, the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network (ECFiber) announced that it is once again expanding, bringing the network to 200 miles by the end of 2014. According to the press release, the network will reach into an additional 8 towns in 2015, in part due to dark fiber deployed in cooperation with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

From the press release:

 “We’re pleased that residents of these areas are now able to enjoy the benefits of locally grown, full time, state-of-the-art real broadband,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich.

Over 400 households have invested in the network thus far, but Thomae goes on to note that the consortium will pursue larger scale funding in 2015 in order to obtain the necessary funds to expand at a quicker pace. Currently, local investors fund the network by purchasing tax-exempt promissory notes.

Subscribership has continued to climb. Last spring, we reported on the 600th sign-up but now ECFiber is at nearly 1,000 customers. There are currently 24 member towns in the consortium. 

Princeton Voters Authorize FTTH Make-Ready Funds in Record Turn-Out

On November 18th, 90% of voters at Princeton's special town meeting approved a measure to fund $1.2 million in make-ready costs bringing the community one step closer to fiber connectivity. The number voters who attended the meeting broke the previous attendance record set 15 years ago by 30%.

We introduced the central Massachusetts town of 3,300 in 2013. The community suffered from poor Internet connectivity negatively impacting its schools, real estate market, and economic development. Since then, the community voted to create a Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate funds to keep the project moving forward.

Community leaders have investigated several options and last fall entered into a relationship with the Matrix Design Group. According to the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF], Matrix will design, build, and operate the FTTH network for a period of 20 years. At the end of that time period, Princeton Broadband Municipal Light Plant has the option of renewing that relationship or purchasing the network for $1.

As their contribution, Princeton will provide rights-of-way, police details during construction, powered telecom shelters, and will pay for utility pole make-ready costs. According to an article in the Landmark:

The make ready work includes replacing approximately 80 utility poles, and moving telephone and electrical lines on 450 poles, providing housing for the electrical components needed to operate the system, and paying for police details during the make ready work.

The borrowing is expected to cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000, about $10 a month or $115 a year increase on their taxes for 12 years. Internet service plus telephone will cost $115 a month. Once a contract is negotiated with Matrix, construction on the make ready phase would start in January 2015 and the project would be completed by January 2016.

It looks like the network will offer Internet connections of 30-50 Mbps; currently options for residents vary from an average 1 Mbps download over Wi-Fi to 1 - 3 Mbps download DSL. According to the PrincetonBroadband.com summary of the deal, 4G LTE in town ranges from 2 - 18 Mbps download. It is not clear if people can purchase a connection faster than 50 Mbps with the current plans.

Princeton Broadband Logo

Preliminary subscription rates are $95 per month for Internet and $115 per month for Internet and voice; video will not be offered. The prices are comparable with what some Princeton residents pay now for much slower "up to" speeds though some do pay less for DSL currently. More detailed info on subscriber costs is also available on the PrincetonBroadband website.

Residents who subscribe during the initial fiber hookup will pay an early discounted installation fee of $250 - $350 if the house is within 250 feet from the road. Early subscribers are committing for two years from the date the network is live. Customers who subscribe later will pay $1,250 - $1,550 to connect.

In compliance with state law, the community must hold a second vote to approve a Proposition 2.5% debt-limit waiver. The town will need to pass the measure by a majority, at which time it will be able to proceed with funding for the make-ready costs. The second vote is scheduled for December 9th. Leverett went through a similar process.

While Princeton's approach minimizes financial exposure, they still carry some risks associated with private ownership of the infrastructure. The network could be sold to a different provider, for instance. From the PrincetonBroadband website:

But we should all be very careful with basing our vote on quibbles with the plan or dreams of a knight in shining armor just around the corner. There are no Plan B’s. There are no other suitors waiting in the wings. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon have even gone so far as to formally decline an offer to come into town. And, doing it ourselves would cost taxpayers over three times more than the Matrix plan would.

Compared to any imaginable alternative, the Matrix plan significantly reduces our tax burden, minimizes our town’s risk, maximizes services to the entire town (not just the most densely populated areas), and is future proofed for generations to come.

Princeton Voters

Voters at the November 18th Town Meeting display pink cards that represent their approval of the Princeton Broadband project. (Thank you to Stan Moss for the photo.)