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New Article on Economic Development and Fiber: "The Killer App for Local Fiber Networks"

Time and again, we share economic development stories from communities that have invested in fiber networks. A new article by Jim Baller, Joanne Hovis, and Ashley Stelfox from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and Masha Zager from Broadband Communities magazine examines the meaning of economic development and the connection to fiber infrastructure.

Economists, advocates, and policymakers grapple with how to scientifically measure the link between the two but:

As Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., observed, “From the point of view of retaining and gaining jobs, I can give you example after example [of the impact of broadband]. … What I don’t have is a long term, double-blind study that says it was just broadband.” But, “as a leader, sometimes you go with your gut.”

In addition to presenting examples from a number of communities such as Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Santa Monica, the article nicely summarizes key information from recent reports on links between broadband and real estate value, household income, and local economic growth.

As the authors note:

Communities increasingly recognize that fiber networks also provide critical benefits for education, public safety, health care, transportation, energy, environmental protection, urban revitalization, government service and much more. But only in revitalizing and modernizing local economies and creating meaningful, well-paying jobs do community leaders, businesses, institutions and residents consistently find common ground. In short, economic development and job creation can fairly be called the “killer app” for local fiber networks.

Worth reading and sharing!

Howard County Fiber Encourages New Jobs, Competition in Maryland - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 133

While at the Broadband Communities Economic Development conference in Springfield last year, I had the good fortune to catch a panel with Chris Merdon, the CIO of Howard County, Maryland.

Howard County has become an Internet Service Provider, not just to itself, but to private firms as well. To improve Internet access for businesses, it is both leasing dark fiber to existing providers and directly offering services to businesses and buildings.

We are grateful that Chris could join us for a Chris2 interview! We discuss how and why Howard County chose this strategy and how it is benefiting the community.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 19 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."

Athens, Ohio Learns from Neighbors and Considers Fiber Investments

Recently, we ran a story on the Columbus suburb of Dublin, which has a growing fiber optic network that has paid huge dividends in public savings, economic development, and facilitating technology research with the Ohio State University. Apparently others are taking notice of Dublin as well: Athens, a city 90 miles to the Southeast, has its city council discussing how to get fiber in the ground and the possibility of a public WiFi network. 

After meeting representatives of Dublin’s economic development department at a conference in November, Athens mayor Paul Wiehl came away impressed enough to start a discussion with the city council about how the Dublin model of extensive conduit networks and fiber access for businesses and public buildings might be adapted to Athens.  Athens is a college town, home of Ohio University, which may mean that like Dublin (which is only a few miles from the Ohio State University) it could be well positioned for research partnerships using fiber optics.

While specific plans have not yet been worked out, 

[Mayor] Wiehl said that the city's public works director, Andy Stone, recently has been looking at ways to incorporate fiber-optic line capacity into city infrastructure projects. The lines likely would be maintained by the city, and probably would run only to local businesses, who would pay the city for use of the Internet service.

Unfortunately, Athens’ city leaders may be overly enamored with the idea of citywide Wi-Fi. DubLINK launched a citywide WiFi network several years ago, but like nearly every other citywide WiFi system in the country it has not been able to deliver reliable high speed connections blanketing the entire city due to technological limitations. WiFi can still provide considerable value if deployed intelligently in specific public spaces as a supplement to other forms of access. But if Athens officials are expecting a cheap and easy answer to providing robust home access over a wide area, they are likely to be disappointed. 

Still, Athens offers an encouraging example of how good connectivity policy ideas can spread from one community to another. Dublin’s example has helped to put fiber investments on the agenda and in the minds of city leaders in Athens. Where the discussion goes from there will be up to the locals. 

Rock Falls to Expand Business Fiber Network

The community of Rock Falls, Illinois, recently decided to move ahead with a project to develop a municipal broadband utility, reports SaukValley.com. At a City Council meeting in early December, members unanimously voted to accept the findings of a feasibility study and move on to develop a formal business plan and preliminary engineering design. From the article:

Alderman Glen Kuhlemier said the table has been set for this project, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of what has already been done.

"To go backward is untenable after the foresight of the past," Kuhlemier said.

Rock Falls has an advantage because it already has substantial fiber resources in place. In the 1990s, the municipal electric utility installed fiber to connect substations. Thinking of the future, the electric utility installed ample fiber, which will significantly reduce the cost and burden to establish a network for business connectivity.

Rock Falls is no stranger to improving local connectivity. In the past, they used excess capacity to connect the city's schools and municipal facilities, reported American Public Power Magazine in 2010. The electric utility partnered with Essex Telecom, an ISP located in nearby Sterling, leasing some of their excess capacity to Essex so they could serve commercial customers.

The plan proposed by consultants would expand the network to connect half of the 350 businesses in the community. The consultanting firm estimates the deployment would cost $700,000 and the city would break even in 7 years.

Rock Falls, population approximately 9,200, is located on the Rock River in the northwest corner of the state; Sterling is immediately across the river. The community's municipal electric utility uses the river to generate hydroelectric power and customers pay rates 10-30% lower than those offered by neighboring investor-owned and cooperative utilities.

In recent years, the population has started to decline. Community leaders intend to jumpstart economic development with the added investment in fiber infrastructure.

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

Indianola Municipal Utilities to Offer Gig Service

Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) announced in a December 1st press release that they will be offering gigabit service in 2015. IMU will also be expanding their FTTH network to an additional 150 premises this winter in the central part of Indianola.

IMU's service partner, MCG, has established the Build My Neighborhood site, which allows Indianolans to inform IMU where they want to see service expanded to next.

IMU and several local partners, including MCG, recently began the IMU Partners Program. According to the press release, the program provides marketing opportunities, common use of network facilities, outreach to the community, and assistance with business development. Member businesses receive advertising on the IMU TV channel and streaming video site, access to outreach STEM events at local schools, and hosting for tech-related events. 

Indianola Municipal Utilities use the network as a long term economic development tool, regularly cooperating with local partners to support entrepreneurs. In 2013, we shared the story of the Indianola + Simpson College Entrepreneurial Development Initiative (EMERGE). The college program relies on IMU for high capacity connectivity to support new high tech ventures. Simpson College and IMU have also developed an incubator to encourage high tech business growth through mentorship.

From the press release:

“Recent reports show that gigabit availability has become an important factor in economic growth, job creation, and property values” states IMU General Manager Todd Kielkopf. “Indianola’s technology investment in connectivity, collaborations, and content delivery is paying dividends”

The full press release is available below.

DubLINK Network Supports Economic Development, Health Care, and Supercomputing

Award-winning supercomputing apps, medical research, economic development, and quantum computing advances. What do they all have in common? They all depend on the DubLINK network running underneath Dublin, Ohio, a suburb on the Northwest edge of Columbus. The city of 43,000 people has 125 miles of fiber optics in the ground, both within its own boundaries and in the form of fiber purchased by the city within metro and regional networks. 

DubLINK began in 1999 as a public private partnership with the Fishel company to build an institutional network. In the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Dublin worried that a recent massive investment of $70 million in streetscaping would be undone as competing providers dug up newly paved streets to install fiber optics. To avoid this, the City signed a franchise agreement with Fishel to install a multi-conduit system, with the city receiving some conduit for its own use.  

Using 1.25” conduits installed in the city’s existing sewer system, the network runs for 25 miles underneath Dublin’s business district and connects six city buildings, who use their own lit fiber for data and voice services, eliminating expense leased line fees. This has allowed the city to save approximately $400,000 per year for the last 12 years in connectivity and information technology expenses.

In 2004, Dublin spent $3.5 million to purchase 96 strands running 100 additional miles through Columbus FiberNet, bringing the total length of the DubLink network to its current 125 miles. FiberNet is a duct system that runs throughout a significant portion of central Ohio, including Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.

The following year, the City of Dublin struck a deal with the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet). OARnet is a 1,600 mile statewide fiber backbone connecting K-12 schools, colleges, universities, federal research labs, and other institutions. A $500,000 grant from the Ohio Board of Regents allowed DubLINK to make its connection with OARnet, and the city gave OARnet an indefeasible right to use 4 of its 96 fiber strands throughout its entire 125 mile network. They called their partnership CORN, for the Central Ohio Research Network. Earlier this year, the Ohio State Legislature awarded DubLink $300,000, which along with a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant and a $328,000 local contribution, will allow DubLINK to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds throughout its entire network.

Seal - Dublin, Ohio

According to Dana McDaniels, Dublin's Director of Development, the city has spent approximately $5.5 million over the years in building, purchasing, and upgrading DubLINK. For this investment, he estimates that the city has received at least a $35 million return on investment already. This includes avoided costs around $4.8 million ($400,000 per year over 12 years), leases to telecoms and other entities of about one third of the city's dark fiber that amount to $3.2 million, and the much more significant gains in employment and thus tax revenue that have resulted from companies expanding or relocating in Dublin to take advantage of its incredible connectivity.

Dublin has a two percent income tax, one quarter of which is dedicated to a wide variety of capital improvement projects. It also uses a small part of this revenue as collateral for tax-increment financing bonds, which it has used to fund some of its share of network construction costs, with the rest of the $5.5 million in total network investments coming from the regular capital improvements budget.

The network is currently being used by a wide variety of public, private, and nonprofit institutions, including National Mutual Insurance, Nestle, Dublin Methodist Hospital, and online reference catalogue company OCLC Inc. OCLC connects to 70,000 libraries around the world, but relies on DubLINK to secure its data by connecting to backup data centers throughout the region.

Rather than narrowly focusing on network revenue, Dublin takes a broader economic development approach to its fiber resources. Development Director McDaniels uses fiber connectivity to lure businesses to locate or expand in Dublin the way other cities use tax credits or land giveaways. Ohio Health, which runs six hospitals in the state and has various other facilities, was granted 4 strands of DubLINK's fiber, which helped them decide to headquarter in the city. They now light and manage the fiber themselves, using it connect to all of their facilities throughout the region. Because they are able to so easily run their operations from Dublin, they have expanded their employment in the city from 300 to 1,200 people.

This September, one of DubLINK’s institutional anchors announced that they would be using DubLink to test new applications for quantum computing. Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit applied science and technology company, signed a five-year deal with DubLINK to use the city’s fiber for their Quantum Key Distribution network, the first commercially-funded network to use quantum computing to encrypt information. Using subatomic particles instead of binary code to transmit information, Battelle claims they have created a form of encryption that will be hack-proof even if quantum computers make traditional encryption techniques obsolete. 

DubLINK proved its usefulness in 2013 as well, when a collaborative including representatives from the City of Dublin, the University of Missouri, and The Ohio State University were recognized for creating the “Best Application for Advanced Manufacturing” at the Next Generation Application Summit in Chicago. The team developed an app called Simulation-as-a-Service, which allows small businesses and labs to remotely access supercomputing capability. Small manufacturers would be able to use the app (in combination with a robust fiber optic connection) to run design simulations through supercomputers on the Ohio State campus, as well as trade design information in massive data files. 

According to Prasad Calyam, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Missouri and the leader of the team developing the app: 

“The app really requires the infrastructure,” said Calyam. “The infrastructure is not the end goal of the project. It’s really the app. But we couldn’t build the app without the infrastructure.”

“Our work on Simulation-as-a-Service is one example where having a city invest in broadband infrastructure will help economic development,” said Calyam. “It helps companies to move there, to use the infrastructure, and essentially build new kinds of collaborations.”

Expedient Logo

The combination of DubLINK’s fiber infrastructure and proximity to The Ohio State University has also helped attract a growing number of data centers and medical research operations. Dublin-based Cardinal Health opened a research center in the city earlier this year, and Expedient Data Centers recently announced plans for a $52 million data center.

An even bigger fish is on the line for Dublin, which is competing with neighboring suburb Hilliard to be the location for a new $1.1 billion Amazon data center. Amazon has been secretive about its plans, but Ohio Governor John Kasich recently confirmed earlier leaks that the center would be located in the Columbus area. 

Dublin is pushing ahead with the expansion of DubLINK in the coming months and years. In conjunction with the upgrade to 100 Gbps speeds, the network is also beginning to move towards an open access Fiber-to-the-Premise model for major office and multitenant buildings in the city. Rather than bringing fiber to the curb and waiting for building owners to take advantage, the city will be bringing the fiber directly into at least 20 buildings this year and about 10 each year thereafter, with the option to increase the pace if it incents businesses to locate or expand in Dublin.

DubLINK has also struck a deal with a local data center that will serve as a "meet me" room and is in talks with ISPs, which will allow those intitutions using DubLINK fiber to connect to whatever ISP they wish over the publicly owned fiber. It will also allow them to connect to OARnet, the National Science Foundation's GENI rack, and the Ohio State University's supercomputer remotely - all at 100 Gbps. 

The local schools are on the docket for connections as well, with the three city high schools and administration building at the head of the line. They all stand to gain 100 Gbps network connections, and will also benefit from the nearly limitless educational resources of Ohio's universities and research organizations available through OARnet.

Whether or not Dublin successfully woos Amazon, its fiber optic network has proven to be a valuable community asset. It has allowed the city to partner with a local provider to launch a city-wide Wi-Fi system over 24 square miles, which uses DubLINK for backhaul and in return allocates 25% of its bandwidth to the city for its own uses, such as police communication and logistical support for large public events. It has supported medical and computing research, creating good jobs in the process. For all these achievements, Dublin has twice been named a Top 7 Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum, and last year Dana McDaniels, who oversaw DubLINK's development, was given ICF's Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Video and Materials Now Available from Blandin

Our friends at the Blandin Foundation recently sponsored another Minnesota Border to Border Broadband conference. Video and materials are now available

In addition to the archived video of the November 19th event in Brainerd, Minnesota, Blandin on Broadband's Ann Treacy provides links to summaries of each session, some of which also have PowerPoint presentations or video available for viewing:

Interest in rural broadband projects has risen sharply in the past two years. In 2013, the state legislature set aside $20 million in grant funding for rural broadband projects; applications have recently come due.

A Star Tribune article reports that entities seek approximately $44.2 million in total for Minnesota projects. Sen. Matt Schmit, the lead author on the grant funding bill also spoke at the conference and told attendees:

“Above all, I think what we wanted to do was prove there was interest out there — that there’s a need."

More Muni Fiber Projects in Maine

Local communities in Maine are mobilizing to jumpstart economic development, expand educational opportunities, and improve Internet access. The town of Orono, located near the center of the state, announced earlier this month that it will working with nearby Old Town and the University of Maine to deploy an open access fiber network pilot project in an area they wish to promote as a technology park.

The news highlights connectivity improvements in Maine happening at the local level. In August, Rockport solidified its plans to bring fiber to its downtown with partner GWI. Soon after, South Portland announced a similar partnership with GWI to spur economic development. Sanford and Isleboro [PDF] have commissioned studies.

The Main Campus reports that Orono, Old Town, the University of Maine, and GWI have been in the planning phase for some time, but lacked funding to deploy:

“We tried to be the first on the map [with fiber-optics], but there were too many obstacles. Now we have the opportunity to do something,” said Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson at last Monday’s Economic Development Committee meeting, where the opportunity was presented.

In early 2012, the town was in talks with Old Town and Maine broadband service provider GWI about connecting the towns and the University of Maine to the Three Ring Binder, an 1,100-mile long highway of fiber optic infrastructure that passes underneath Bennoch Road. In order to take advantage of the opportunity, the towns planned on coming together in a collaborative called Old Town-Orono Fiber (OTO Fiber) and applied for grant funding to go through with the project.

Although they weren’t able to receive the necessary funds in 2012, the town is in a better position this time around.

The Three Ring Binder, an open access dark fiber network owned by the Maine Fiber Company, was funded with ARRA stimulus dollars and private investment. The network went live in 2012 but providers have not built out last-mile connections as anticipated. To fill the gaps, these communities are taking matters into their own hands and investing in that last-mile fiber infrastructure.

The partners recently received a $125,000 grant from ConnectME Authority but will need to secure matching funds from the Northern Border Regional Commission. The Commission was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill to support economic development projects in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. The pilot project will connect to the Three Ring Binder that runs near the park. Cost to the city is estimated at $25,000 - $30,000.

A new tenant, Eastern Maine Health, signed a lease contingent on the pilot project. Other entities are also interested in the location. 

According to Town Planner Evan Richert, Eastern Maine Health could potentially bring 150 new jobs to the area.

“It’s going to fill two buildings that have been vacant for two to three [or more] years and which have had quite a drag on the impression of our vitality [as a town],” Richert said.

“It’s also dragging the valuation down at the tech park, part of that $4 million loss in value [reported for fiscal year ‘14] was directly related to lack of rented space out there,” Wilson said.

Columnists from local press are opining about the state's poor connectivity. Bill Nemitz from the Portland Daily Press recently wrote about Wired West in Massachusetts, challenging readers to demand better from elected officials. Some of them already understand the need. Nemitz wrote:

As U.S. Sen. Angus King, a broadband cheerleader if ever there was one, put it in an interview Thursday, high-speed broadband is as important to rural Maine as stringing electrical wires to outlying homes and farms was back in the 1930s.

“We’ve absolutely got to do it,” said King. “It’s an economic death sentence for a community that can’t get broadband.”

In June, Bruce Segee, University of Maine professor of electrical and computer engineering, spoke with the Bangor Daily News about the pilot project:

“If [municipalities] want prosperity, [they] need to make something and bring people from outside to buy it,” Segee said.

Orono, Old Town, South Portland, and Rockport have decided to stop waiting for providers to bring that "something" to their communities and do it themselves. The Daily News:

A desire to attract and grow businesses is part of the reason why Orono and Old Town have taken steps toward building fiber for homes. For Richert, “the economic development of small communities rests less [now] with big developments and real estate but more with startups and established small companies innovating with new products.”

There’s no time to wait for Internet service providers to step up and make the investment themselves.

“We can’t afford to wait,” Richert said. “We need to grow small businesses.”

Estes Park, Colorado, to Ask Voters to Reclaim Authority in February

The recent Colorado elections in Boulder, San Miguel County, Yuma County, Rio Blanco County, Wray, Yuma, Red Cliff, and Cherry Hills Village have inspired Estes Park. According to a recent Trail Gazette article, the northern town will hold a special election in February to ask voters to reclaim telecommunications authority. Approximately 5,800 people live in Estes Park.

The local Estes Park Economic Development Corporation (EDC) adopted a resolution in August urging the town council to take the issue to the voters reports the Trail Gazette. The council voted unanimously to support that idea.

"This resolution resulted from an extensive investigation into how to achieve a key goal in the Town's 2014 strategic plan: 'to encourage optimal use of the Platte River Power Authority's and Town's fiber optic infrastructure,' " [EDC's David] Batey said.

"We must take back the Town's right to decide the best way to provide competitive broadband," Batey said.

"Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life," stated the EDC.

The town and the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) share ownership of a fiber optic network between Estes Park and nearby Loveland. The ring was installed about 10 years ago for operation of the PRPA Transmission and Substation Electric System. Flooding in 2013 eliminated the other telecommunications infrastructure connecting Estes Park to the outside world, so there is no redundancy.

The City leases several of its fibers to Level 3 for a little over $1,600 per month but connectivity in town varies. Some areas rely on dial-up while others have DSL. There are also several smaller Wi-Fi providers working in the area.

Estes Park is well known as a tourist destination and like other rural areas we have reported on, resort areas often do not have access to fast, reliable, affordable networks. As visitors increasingly expect to be connected 24/7, remote and geographically challenging regions need to rely on themselves to bring better connectivity to businesses, guests, and residents.

The community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. The purpose of the grant was to help the flood disaster area develop a economic diversification and industry job retention and recovery strategy. Part of that strategy involves developing better connectivity - a key to expanding beyond tourism as an economic base.

Thusfar, the community has earmarked $80,000 for a broadband study and $50,000 to develop a technology incubator co-working space.