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WiredWest Grows: Roster of Towns Up to 22

Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.

According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.

Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:

A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.

Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:

Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.

Communities in western Massachusetts are each taking up authorization needed to cover their share of the connectivity project. All but one of 23 towns voting thus far have exhibited strong support. In Montgomery - that one town that did not support the proposal - the measure lost by only two votes, reported the Berkshire Eagle. Chesterfield and Goshen approved funding earlier this month, both to big crowds of voters. Leyden approved their participation at a meeting in May with a 90-33 vote.

Of the 45 towns eligible to participate and obtain state funding, 33 Select Boards have committed to presenting bond authorization measures before their voters. Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest's Board of Directors told the Eagle in June:

"Ultimately, the overwhelming votes so far are a resounding affirmation that the citizens, businesses and institutions of Western Mass. towns underserved by broadband are ready, willing and eager to move forward with the WiredWest regional fiber network."

We spoke with Webb in May in episode #149 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Local residents who were tired of dial-up and satellite established the cooperative as a way to band together and turn up the volume on their collective voice. Each community has representation on the executive board and will receive a share of state funding designated for the project.

At the meeting in New Salem, the town's Broadband Committee Chair MaryEllen Kennedy told told the audience:

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire, another reason we thought a government co-op was the way to go."

The next step in New Salem and in other Massachusetts communities where voters have approved borrowing is to hold a special town election to approve an exemption to Massachusetts' Proposition 2 1/2 tax levy limit.

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.”

Gigabit Internet for North Central Ohio Schools

Consolidated Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit, member-owned cooperative, will soon offer gigabit broadband in rural North Central Ohio. They intend to first offer the gigabit to local schools and then to businesses.

According to eSchoolNews, Consolidated Electric Cooperative will provide 15 school districts with gigabit connectivity. The school districts will then have greater access to online resources and be better able to comply with mandated online testing in Ohio. In the article, Doug Payauys, vice-president of information systems for Consolidated Electric Cooperative, described the need for improved Internet access in schools:

"Technology is creating a shift in today’s classroom, and it’s transforming the way teachers educate and students learn. As the country becomes a more digital-based society, schools must work to transform lesson plans and accommodate new technologies” 

The gigabit broadband will also improve the Wi-Fi in the school districts, providing more bandwidth for wireless learning devices. Wireless connections almost always depend on wireline backhaul to ensure each access point does not have a bottleneck between the user and the larger Internet. With better Wi-Fi, the schools hope to support an online curriculum for students to learn at their own pace.

Consolidated Electric Cooperative also intends to offer the gigabit connectivity to local businesses. They already offer some broadband connections to businesses through their Enlite Fiber Optic Network. They first began to develop this network in 2010 with some costs covered through the Broadband Initiatives Program created by the stimulus effort. Since then, they have expanded the network which now consists of 200 miles of fiber optic cable from Columbus to Mansfield, spanning five rural counties in North Central Ohio.

They currently do not offer residential fiber, focusing instead on providing a middle mile connectivity to governments, schools and businesses. They are, however, prepared to adapt to support residential services in the future:

Payauys noted that the network has been designed to enable Consolidated to easily deploy residential broadband if the company were to choose to do so at a future time. And already some other network operators – including three wireless Internet service providers – have stepped up to offer residential broadband using the Consolidated network for aggregation and Internet connectivity.

Consolidated Electric Cooperative expects about a four-year payback on the network and appears ready to continue expanding broadband access in rural Ohio.

Another Rural Telephone Cooperative to Deploy Gigabit Fiber Network

Residents in the southeast rural town of Frontenac, Kansas, will have access to fiber by the spring of 2016, reports the FourStatesHomePage.com

After receiving approval from the Frontenac City Council, the Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative announced that it intends to deploy fiber within the city of 3,400. Each home will have access; gigabit service will cost approximately $70 per month. Construction will begin this summer.

From the article and the video embedded below:

"It's just superior to anything out there. I mean, we've been doing fiber for several years. We have well over 2,000 customers, and I think we just finally asked ourselves why are we restricting the use of this fiber optic cable when it can do so much more than what most people are receiving?" said Craig Wilbert, Craw-Kan General Manager.

Co-Mo Cooperative Facing Off With Subsidized CenturyLink in Missouri

Parts of rural central Missouri have some of the fastest Internet service available thanks to fiber service from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and United Electric Cooperative. The two have worked together to bring gigabit FTTH to cooperative members in central Missouri. Now that they have proven that people and businesses want high capacity connectivity, CenturyLink is about to enter the scene. The company plans to use millions of dollars in Connect America Funds (CAF) to build in areas already served by the cooperatives.

After years of planning and hard work, Co-Mo and United are not taking the threat lightly. They have filed challenges with the Wireline Competition Bureau but CenturyLink's Inside-the-Beltway power has thus far served them well. The Wireline Competition Bureau denied a challenge by Co-Mo and United but the decision appears to contradict established policy. Co-Mo and United recently appealed to the FCC asking them to review the Bureau's Order allowing CenturyLink to use over $10 million in CAF. [Read the Application for Review here.]

CenturyLink argues that Co-Mo and United are not providing voice services because they are working with a third party, Big River Telephone Company, to bring VoIP to members. If this were true, it could disqualify them as providers and lend credence to the argument that there are census blocks in the area that are not served. Because Co-Mo and United install, take phone orders for subscribers, and service phone switches, they should qualify as a provider of land line voice services. 

CenturyLink also asserted that census block information showed areas unserved even though those areas now have access to fiber connectivity from Co-Mo and United. General Manager of Co-Mo Connect Randy Klindt told us that the timing of their build prevented Co-Mo from providing an active customer in each block, but that service is available to people who live there. Even though it is not a requirement, Co-Mo and United now have detailed information that prove people in those census blocks can, and do, take FTTH service.

Co-Mo and United waged successful challenges for similar CAF awards to AT&T and Windstream. CenturyLink appears determined to use tax subsidies to build what will likely be only a fraction of the speed and reliability of Co-Mo or United Cooperative networks infrastructure. Unfortunately, CenturyLink's usual modus operandi - offering cheap intro rates to lure customers away from local providers like Co-Mo and United - could harm new investment in high speed networks.

Klindt also summed up the larger policy concern in an email:

The commission’s directive was to ensure that CAF support should not be used to build broadband in areas already served by an unsubsidized competitor...This money should be used in legitimate unserved areas, not areas with gigabit residential service available.

Learn more about Co-Mo Cooperative and their fiber network, Co-Mo Connect, in episode #140 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where Chris interviewed Randy Klindt.

Paul Bunyan Communications Spreading Fiber Across Northern MN

The northern half of Minnesota, despite its rural character, is rapidly improving in high quality Internet access. Paul Bunyan Communications, the cooperative serving much of the Bemijdi area, began work on its GigaZone network last fall and the network is snaking its way across the region. According to an April 20th press release from the cooperative, GigaZone is now available to 500 more locations from the rural areas near Lake George to Itasca State Park. This brings the number of customers with access to GigaZone to 5,000.

Rates for symmetrical Internet access range from $44.95 per month for 20 Mbps to $74.95 per month for 50 Mbps. Higher speeds are available, including gigabit Internet access, but the cooperative asks potential customers to call for pricing.

We first reported on Paul Bunyan Telephone Communications in 2009. The cooperative began expanding its existing fiber network in 2007 but gigabit connectivity did not become available to members until earlier this year. Upgrades began in Bemidji and will continue to include the cooperatives entire 5,000 square mile service area. As new lines are installed, older lines will also be upgraded to fiber to transform the entire network. 

The cooperative began offering Internet access in 1996 as Paul Bunyan Telephone. Three years later, Paul Bunyan began infrastructure upgrades that allowed it to offer phone, high-speed Internet access, and digital television. The network expanded incrementally and continued to implement technological improvements. In 2005, the cooperative expanded with fiber technology for the first time. In 2010, Paul Bunyan Telephone changed its name to Paul Bunyan Communications.

At an event to announce GigaZone last fall, leadership from the region's economic development commission noted the new unleashed potential:

Greater Bemidji Director Dave Hengel compared Paul Bunyan to pioneering software giant Apple.  

“In many, many ways, Paul Bunyan Communications has become the Apple of greater Bemidji and the region, he said. “They are always on the leading edge.”

The GigaZone network will help attract businesses and workers to the area, Hengel added.

“In fact, I happen to believe that after today, our greatest competitive advantage in the greater Bemidji region will be our broadband network, thanks in very large part to the work of Paul Bunyan,” he said.

Northern Minnesotans in Lake County and Cook County are also in the midst of FTTH projects. You can read more about those projects in our 2014 report All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

Shutesbury and Wendell Residents Ready to Vote on WiredWest

Five months ago volunteers in Shutesbury gathered to inventory local poles to prepare for a possible fiber deployment. Now, more than 40 percent of local households have committed to high-speed Internet access through WiredWest, reports MassLive. Nearby Wendell is also celebrating the 40 percent milestone. According to the article, these are the first communities in the WiredWest region to reach the 40 percent milestone

The next step will be a required two-thirds vote at a town meeting to authorize borrowing to fund the deployment in each community. After that, a majority of voters must approve a debt exclusion in Shutesbury and Wendell to invest in the capital projects as required by state law.

Shutesbury's Broadband Committee Co-chair Gayle Huntress told MassLive that it was no surprise that the community reached the 40 percent threshold needed to move to the next step:

"We are internet-starved," she said. "You should see the people sitting in their cars outside the library and town hall to use the wireless signal."

A small portion of Shutesbury residents already have access to the internet via Verizon DSL, which is built upon deteriorating copper telephone wires, said Huntress. Others use satellite dishes.

Shutesbury is home to approximately 1,800 people on 27 square miles. Wendell is a bit larger at 32 square miles but only 848 people live there.They expect to borrow $1.66 million and $1.19 million respectively to apply to the cost of deployment in their communities. 

Massachusetts has offered to contribute up to 40 percent of the funds to connect rural towns to the state's MassBroadband 123 middle mile network, but local communities must contribute the remainder. In Shutesbury, the total cost of the deployment is estimated at $2.58 million.

Improving Mid-Atlantic Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 146

When we last wrote about the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, it was a coop focused on open access middle mile connections. Now it has become the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation and is starting to work on some plans to expand open access last mile access.

This week, we speak with MBC President and CEO Tad Deriso to learn more about their history and current approach. We discuss how they got started financially and lessons for other middle mile open access efforts.

We also discuss their plan to expand the model to last mile businesses and homes in Martinsville in southern Virginia. And along the way, we learn how incumbent providers react differently to open access in the middle mile than in the last mile.

Read the transcript from our discussion 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.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Cooperative Lights Up $88 Gigabit in Northeast Alabama

Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative (FTC) is now bringing gigabit service to its Alabama members. According to the Online Reporter, FTC is the largest member-owned cooperative in the state and offers symmetrical service to businesses and residents in two counties.

The cooperative began in 1952 when telephone companies of the time did not want to invest in the rural area of the state due to low expected returns. Years earlier, the community had organized its own electric cooperative and reproduced its success to bring telephone service to residents. The area, referred to as Sand Mountain, is a natural plateau at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

WHNT 19 News attended a lighting ceremony in Geraldine where the FTC CEO said that the cooperative has covered approximately 84 percent of its membership area. The fiber network runs between Chattanooga and Huntsville, consisting of approximately 2,770 miles of fiber.

“We’ve now covered about 84 percent of our traditional membership on Sand Mountain between the Tennessee River and the Georgia/Tennessee lines,” said Fred Johnson, CEO of Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative. “We’ve also been able to extend that network to communities of interest such as Fort Payne, Collinsville, Valley Head, Section, Dutton, and other areas in DeKalb and Jackson County that are part of our competitive area but not traditional area.  They now all have access to that fiber broadband network.”

“Geraldine, and every other municipality in DeKalb and Jackson County that we touch can say they’re a gig city just like the rest,” Johnson says.

FTC pricing for stand alone symmetrical  broadband is an affordable $67.50 for 100 Mbps and $88 for gigabit service. The cooperative also offers triple play and other bundling options.

WHNT 19's coverage:

Chanute and Chattanooga Added to List of Rural Broadband Experiment Funds

A year ago, the FCC accepted applications from entities seeking Connect America funds for rural broadband experiments. After provisional awards and some eliminations, Chanute's FTTH project, Chattanooga's EPB, and a number of additional cooperatives are now on the list of provisional winners reports Telecompetitor.

According to the article, $27 million became available when 16 entities were eliminated for various reasons.

A recent Chanute Tribune article reports that the city's expected award will be approximately $508,000 if it passes the FCC's post-selection process. Mikel Kline, a consultant working closely with the city on its FTTH project told the Tribune:

It is Kline’s understanding that this $508,467 would be cost support for the city’s Fiber to the Home network over the next six years. It requires the city to become an eligible telecommunications carrier, and to finance and construct the fiber network.

This money can be used to pay operational costs or offset a portion of the debt on the city’s investment in the local infrastructure over the next six years.

Remember that Chanute has developed its fiber infrastructure incrementally over more than two decades. The community is moving ahead with its FTTH project to share the benefits of fiber with residents and more businesses after bringing better connectivity to schools, municipal facilities, and a growing number of businesses. 

Recently, the city applied for and received state approval to bond for deployment costs. A 1947 state law required the application be filed with the Kansas Corporation Commission, the state entity concerned with utility regulations. According to Kline, the city has also applied for eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) status. This designation will allow the city, as a common telecommunications carrier, to obtain Kansas Universal Services Funds.

Read more about their accomplishments in our 2013 case study. We also interviewed Larry Gates and J.D. Lester from Chanute about the network in episode 16 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.