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USDA Broadband Funding for Rural Projects; Coops On Top

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:


Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.


Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million loan.

Northeast Service Cooperative will receive two $3 million grants and, through a partnership with the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, provide broadband service on the the Fond du Lac Reservation.


Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will upgrade their system with fiber through a $29.95 million loan.


@Link Services will receive $1.5 million in grants to provide broadband services in Seminole County.

South Carolina

FTC Communications will improves its wireless to 4G/LTE with a $12.38 million loan.


Scott County Telephone Cooperative, with a $2.1 million grant, will provide one gigabit to 540 locations in Dickenson County to increase economic development.


LaValle Telephone Cooperative will use a $7.61 million loan to deploy fiber.

It is no longer surprising to find faster, more affordable, more reliable Internet networks in rural areas served by coopertives. Minnesota's Farmers Mutual Telephone CooperativeCo-Mo Cooperative central Missouri, or Farmer's Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama are only a few we have covered. As large corporate providers fail to provide modern services, rural cooperatives have stepped up to offer services to their members and improve economic development prospects in the communities they serve.

Carrier Neutral Facilities Creates Big Savings in Steamboat Springs

On July 6th and 7th, much of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, lost phone and Internet when a fiber line was cut, creating a public safety hazard. In order to aviod future massive outages and improve connectivity, Steamboat Springs has decided to develop a Carrier Neutral Location or CNL, much like a similar initiative in nearby Cortez.

In July a CenturyLink fiber optic line was accidentally cut by construction crews, disrupting the 911 emergency system for about 3 hours. No calls were missed, but it is a terrifying reminder of how small towns are dependent on incumbent providers like CenturyLink for basic services.

The community, located in the northwest corner of the state and home to about 12,000 people, is known as a popular ski destination in the winter months. Locations like Steamboat Springs have a natural beauty in the rugged terrain, but incumbent providers tend to see a poor return-on-investment rather than beauty.

The July incident was not the first. In October 2011, an 8-hour outage caused a potential $1 million loss to the economy. If the outage had taken place during peak tourist season, the estimated cost would have been $1 million per hour. In order to ensure their public safety and ability to attract economic development, leaders in Steamboat Springs have decided to end the possibility of massive outage caused by a single cut by investing in a place where multiple carriers can connect.

A CNL is a space owned and maintained by a neutral party where broadband providers can connect to each other to provide redundancy. Sometimes referred to as "meet-me rooms," CNLs are especially useful for middle- and last-mile providers to connect. The facility drives down the cost of bandwidth for community anchor institutions and service providers because they do not require a separate facility for connections and fees are typically reasonable. The CNL in Steamboat Springs went online on June 1st, 2014.

In the first year, the CNL allowed the school district, the city, and the county to buy from middle-mile providers Mammoth Networks and EagleNet. Formerly, the school district paid CenturyLink $23 per Mbps per month for 300 Mbps but now purchases 700 Mbps per month for $6.80 per Mbps from ISP Mammoth.

Funding for the CNL was provided by a private donation of $125,000 and $5,000 each from the city, the county, the chamber, the school district, and the medical center for a total of $150,000. The CNL’s operating costs are about $10,500. 

Northwest Colorado Broadband (NCB), a cooperative formed in 2012 includes local government, educational, utilty, and business entities from the region. The cooperative allows the project to function without running afoul of SB 152, the Colorado law passed that prevents local government from providing telecommunications services. NCB will manage the fiber connections and the CNL. By joining forces, the partners anticipate significant savings, better reliability, and access to more capcaity.

Tom Kern, CEO of the Steamboat Chamber and NCB President stated in a press release [PDF]:

This is a creative way to achieve expanded service for a significantly lower cost to critical community institutions...By consolidating demand, members will be able to obtain enormous broadband capacity at about a tenth of the cost they currently pay.

In addition to the CNL, Routt county has found a consultant to study broadband deficiencies throughout the county. The cost was partially covered by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. NCB, Steamboat Springs School District, the city of Steamboat Springs, Yampa Valley Medical Center and Yampa Valley Electric Association provided the remaining funding for the study.

For more information on Steamboat Springs and the CNL, check out Community Broadband Bits Episode 163, in which Chris interviews Tim Miles, the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts.

Paul Bunyan Communications Wins Award for GigaZone

Sometimes we just want to celebrate a small victory for local communities. Back in June, Paul Bunyan Communications won the 2015 Leading Lights National Award for Most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service.

This small cooperative from rural northern Minnesota beat both innovative local firms like C Spire and national companies like Google. Whereas Comcast is rolling out Gigabit Pro in Silicon Valley, Paul Bunyan Communications is serving sparsely populated, often-ignored, rural areas. Gary Johnson, the Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager was honored to accept the award and explained their approach to gigabit access:

“It is one of the first gigabit network initiatives that will encompassas a large rural area and I think that is significant. Many of the gigabit network projects taking place are in small portions of densely populated metropolitan areas. Too often, the more challenging rural America gets overlooked.”

Paul Bunyan Communications has created a GigaZone passing 7,800 locations, and will soon include 20,000 locations by the end of this year. Those in the GigaZone will have the opportunity to buy a Gigabit connection for only $100 a month. The goal for the small telecom cooperative is to expand the GigaZone to encompass the entire 5,000 square mile service area. Now, that deserves an award.

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.

Murfreesboro Wants to Use Existing Fiber for Better Connectivity

In the center of Tennessee sits Murfreesboro, the fastest growing city in the state with 108,000 people and one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (Just 10 years ago there were only 68,000 residents.) Murfreesboro is also one of the next communities to show an interest in a publicly owned fiber network to improve connectivity.

In an August press release [PDF], Murfreesboro Electric Department (MED) described their existing 19-mile fiber infrastructure, used for communication and control purposes for the electricity distribution system. The fiber was deployed in 2008, says MED General Manager Steve Sax, and the utility is now making plans to use spare fibers for Internet connectivity. MED is in the process of expanding its network by an additional 20 miles.

Sax also stated that MED is working with Middle Tennessee State University to develop a fiber optics pilot project but did not offer details other than it is "very similar to what Google is doing in Nashville."

MED and the Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative (MTEMC) recently entered into negotiations for MTEMC to acquire the MED. The city of Murfreesboro is in the center of the MTEMC service area and the two have been duplicating efforts in some areas. The city and cooperative signed a memo of understanding in June and the process is moving forward slowly. MTEMC serves over 200,000 cooperative members in a four county service territory; the MED provides electricity to approximately 56,000 customers.

MTEMC does not offer telecommunications services at this time but according to a Daily News Journal article, the cooperative is investing in fiber:

"We have been working with an enterprise ... on a fiber network," said [Brad Gibson, MTEMC chief business officer] about the utility that covers Rutherford, Wilson, Williamson and Cannon counties.

MTEMC has contracted with a private company to install and manage its fiber network but the utility is also researching the possibility of developing its own network, he said.

"We are dedicated to fiber," Gibson said.

The ownership of the public electric utility notwithstanding, leadership at the utility understand the impact today's investment will have on Murfreesboro's future. From the press release:

"Back when MED was founded, electricity was the crucial piece of infrastructure that our grandparents and great-grandparents worked to extend throughout the city," [Sax] says. "Now it's our turn. Broadband Internet is every bit as essential to keeping Murfreesboro competitive now as electricity was then. We welcome the opportunity to work with the city to continue enhancing the quality of life for our citizens."

Modest Investment Yields Results in Steamboat Springs - Community Broadband Bits Episode 163

When Steamboat Springs resolved to improve Internet access for key community anchor institutions and businesses, they decided to make an economical investment in a carrier neutral facility to allow multiple ISPs to invest and compete with each other. In episode 163 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Tim Miles explains what that means and how they did it.

Tim is the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts in Colorado. He tells us about the poor connectivity the community had from CenturyLink and how they opened a bottleneck to encourage more investment. In part because of how Colorado limits local authority to build networks, they formed the Northwest Colorado Broadband Cooperative with the local Chamber of Commerce.

They are already seeing benefits in the form of lower prices for anchor institutions and reduced outages - Tim describes just how painful those outages had been when there was no local Internet choice.

Read the transcript from this discussion here.

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

This show is 20 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."

Who Has Citywide Gigabit Internet Access for $100 or Less?

As Westminster begins serving customers with its new FTTH network and partner Ting, we were curious how many communities are there where a residential subscriber can obtain affordable gigabit access? We estimate the number of networks, large or small, where a majority of residents in a community can obtain gigabit service for $100 or less to be 12. Westminster will be there in a few years.

Update: Russellville, Kentucky and Salisbury, North Carolina, also offer a gigabit, bringing the total number of citywide gigabit networks to 14. On September 1, we added another network that we previously overlooked - CSpire in Quitman and Flora, Mississippi (and soon others).

Municipal citywide, sub $100 gigabit providers:

  • Leverett, Massachusetts
  • North Kansas City, Missouri
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Tullahoma, Tennessee
  • Sandy, Oregon
  • UTOPIA Cities, Utah
  • Russellville, Kentucky
  • Salisbury, North Carolina (Fibrant)


  • Paul Bunyan Communications, Minnesota
  • Farmer's Telecom, Alabama
  • Co-Mo Connect, Missouri

Private Companies:

  • Google - Kansas City, Provo
  • CSpire - Quitman and Flora, Mississippi
  • MetroNet - Crawfordsville, Indiana (formerly a muni)
  • Burlington, Vermont - (currently privately owned, formerly a muni with future in limbo)

We included municipal networks, cooperatives, and privately owned companies. When considering networks that cover multiple jurisdictions in a single area, we counted it as one (thus Google counts as 1 in KC, Chattanooga is 1 in TN). And we were looking for gigabit networks - not just gigabit download. While we prefer to see symmetrical connections, we accepted 500 Mbps up for our threshold.

We could not identify any cities served by AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, or any other similar company where the majority of the community has access to a gig. Those providers tend to cherry pick and even then, their prices are over $100 typically. For example, CenturyLink advertises a gig at $80 but then requires other services and hidden fees that make the monthly bill closer to $150.

We found affordable residential gigabit service from networks in urban, suburban, or rural communities from 12 networks (some of which cover multiple communities). Trying to determine how much of the community has access to a service is challenging, so please contact us with any corrections. In a few years, munis like Longmont and private companies like Ting will join the list. 

While the number of providers are few, many of them do serve multiple communities. The coops, including Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama and Missouri's Co-Mo Cooperative, provide the service to a long list of smaller communities within their service areas. There is also the open access network UTOPIA, with at least 7 providers that offer gigabit FTTH below our price point in nine communities currently served by the network (to various degrees, some cities have little coverage whereas others are almost entirely built out). 

Prices range from $0 to $99.95 per month with the highest concentration at $70 or higher. In North Kansas City, residents pay $300 for installation and receive gigabit Internet access for $0 per month for the next 10 years. This incredible offer is available due to the presence of LiNKCity, a network deployed by the city and now managed and operated by a private partner. 

AT&T has launched its $70 GigaPower in parts of 12 different metro areas, although the price requires users to submit to a special web based advertising program. Even when these big firms finally invest in high capacity connections, they find new ways to exploit their subscribers - a reminder that who deploys a technology can be as important as what that technology is.

Now that the gig barrier has been blasted away (primarily by municipal networks and smaller ISPs) we expect to see more networks and providers offering affordable gig service to residents. 

Gigabit Cat photo courtesy of Michael Himbeault and shared through a Creative Commons license.

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.