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Sale of OptiNet: BVU Caught Between Virginia's Rock And A Hard Place

For more than a decade, the people of Bristol, Virginia have enjoyed what most of us can only dream about - fast affordable, reliable, connectivity.  In recent days, we learned that Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority (BVU) has entered into a deal to sell its OptiNet triple-play fiber network to a private provider. The deal is contingent on approval by several entities.

As we dig deeper into the situation, we understand that troubles in southwestern Virginia and Bristol have led to this decision. Nevertheless, we urge the Bristol community to weigh the long-term consequences before they sacrifice OptiNet. Once you give up control, you won’t get it back.

"...A Few Bad Apples..."

If the people of Bristol surrender this valuable public asset to the private market, they run the risk of undoing 15 years of great work. None of this is a commentary on the private provider, Sunset Digital Communications, which may be a wonderful company. The problem is that Sunset will be making the decisions in the future, not the community. 

OptiNet has helped the community retain and create jobs, attracting and retaining more than 1,220 well-paying positions from Northrup Grumman, CGI, DirecTV, and Alpha Natural Resources. Businesses have cut Internet access and telecommunications costs. Officials estimate around $50 million in new private investment and $36 million in new annual payroll have come to the community since the development of OptiNet. The network allowed public schools to drastically reduce telecommunications expenses and introduce gigabit capacity long before such speeds were the goal among educators.

Schools and local government saved approximately $1 million from 2003 - 2008. Subscribers have saved considerably as well, which explains OptiNet's high take rate of over 70 percent. Incumbent telephone provider Sprint (now CenturyLink) charged phone rates 25 percent higher than OptiNet in 2003. The benefits are too numerous to mention in one short story.

However, BVU is emerging from a dark period marked by corrupt management. This sad reality actually makes its considerable achievements all the more remarkable. Last summer, several officials from BVU's OptiNet utility were indicted and found guilty of a number of federal charges including falsifying invoices, taking kickbacks, and misusing funds all for personal gain. Four people were fined and sentenced to prison. One other official is still being tried for her involvement in misuse of funds and tax offenses.

When this small number of officials violated the trust in Bristol that accompanies a locally managed utility, their actions negatively impacted the entire community. The actions of a few bad apples may have put the entire barrel at risk.

An Unsolicited Offer

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A few months later, Sunset Digital Communications approached BVU with an offer to purchase OptiNet. Sunset had its financing in place prior to making the offer.

Sunset worked with the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission on its 2001 Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project in Lee and Wise Counties in southern Virginia and Tennessee.

The company, based in Duffield, Virginia, serves 80,0000 residents and businesses. They also provide services to anchor institutions, and other Internet service providers. Sunset wants to use the OptiNet infrastructure to start an expansion into rural areas. In a recent Herald Courier article, Sunset President and CEO Paul Elswick described the relationship between OptiNet and Sunset as "friendly competitors."

Virginia Doesn’t Care About Rural People

BVU has been effectively prevented from expanding into nearby rural communities by Virginia law, which limits which business models BVU can use despite an utter lack of interest from existing providers improving their services in that region. 

BVU Authority Board Chair Jim Clifton told WCYB:

"We have peaked in our ability to compete, and again, if we can't get grants, and even with the grants, we can only go into certain areas. We can only go into a 75 mile radius of our footprint," Clifton said. He said as a public utility, they have reached the peak for providing those types of services.

Bristol's neighbors want OptiNet because of the great things it has accomplished for Bristol but state legislators will not allow the city to share the wealth. The pressure to expand through privatization is testament to OptiNet's success in a harsh, anti-muni environment.

In Steps Richmond

Rather than allowing BVU to bring its high capacity connections to those who desperately want it, legislators are using the actions of a few corrupt officials to further harm one of the few sources of economic growth in southwest Virginia.

While Sunset was pursuing BVU, State Senator Bill Carrico (R-Galax) was preparing a bill the Bristol Herald Courier described as a "wrecking ball for a job better suited to a hammer." The bill, a knee jerk reaction to the federal indictments, would reduce the size of the BVU authority and effectively transfer broad decision-making to state leadership by appointment. The editorial board described it as a way for the state to revoke local authority from Bristol for more than just OptiNet. From the Herald:

At the same time, Carrico wants to reduce to just two board members the representation from Bristol, Virginia, where the customer base represents 46 percent of OptiNet, 86 percent of wastewater, 98 percent of water, and 53 percent of electricity service business. 

We believe stronger oversight is required — and new blood on the board is essential — but not necessarily appointed from the governor’s office.

The City Council also opposed the bill but managed to get an amendment that allowed more Bristol representation on any new Board. Those members would only vote on water and sewer issures. SB 329 has passed through the Committee on Local Governments and now awaits a vote by the full body. It is not clear what will become of the bill if the sale of OptiNet is finalized.

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A Tempting Offer But At What Price?

Sunset has offered $50 million to purchase OptiNet, which now carries approximately $24.4 million in long-term debt, reports the Herald Courier. A portion of that includes interdepartmental loans from the electric division to OptiNet. The electric system, water and sewer systems carry about $20.9 million combined, the bulk of which belongs to the electric system. BVU CEO Dan Bowman told the Herald Courier that the sale of OptiNet "would enable BVU to pay off all its $48 million in long-term indebtedness in all four divisions." There is some debate about whether or not this is possible, according to the agreement between the city and the BVU Authority.

The idea of becoming debt free is intrinsically appealing, but at what cost? BVU generates the necessary revenues to service its debt. Should Sunset decide to sell to one of the big corporate providers like Comcast, subscribers will be subject to the same price hikes and sub-par customer service like the rest of us. The purchase agreement has not been made public yet, but unless Sunset agrees to retain ownership or BVU is allowed a right of first refusal if Sunset decides to sell OptiNet, the risk is real.

Moving Along

On Tuesday, the Bristol City Council quickly approved a 2009 agreement between the city and BVU to clean up loose ends so the purchase can move forward. The agreement ensures that after debts are paid, half of all proceeds from a sale of OptiNet will go to the city. The City Council seems poised to approve the purchase, which must also be approved by the Cumberland Plateau Company (CPC), U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, National Telecom and Information Administration and Virginia Tobacco Commission. 

CPC is part of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission, an entity established by the state legislature to improve economic development. CPC has the right of first refusal to purchase OptiNet because it was a partner in its deployment and its infrastructure is located in the CPC service area. If CPC and the other entities approve the transaction, the sale is expected to be finalized in May or June.

Rocks Carefully Placed For Maximum Effect

The deal is not over but momentum is moving toward the sale. No one can deny that BVU is under intense amount of pressure from several fronts. Virginia legislated a hostile environment that pushed OptiNet to privatize if it wanted to continue expanding to meet the needs of neighbors. The only interests served by this policy have been the big cable and telephone companies that maintain lobbyists in Richmond so they can pay less attention to the rest of the state.

When legislators are too cozy with big corporate Internet access providers, the only choice for expansion may be privatization. If the Virginia State Legislators were considering their constituents first, they would do what it takes to grow more networks like OptiNet. In other words, remove all barriers in the form of onerous requirements that limit expansion and discourage public investment in Internet networks.

The actions of a few corrupt BVU officials have played right into the hands of those that want to limit local Internet choice. 

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

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

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

An Opportunity for Connectivity

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

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

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

Economic Development and Community Vitality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No Discount For You!"

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

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

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

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

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

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

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

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

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Seniors on the Chopping Block

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

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

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

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

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

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grassroots Springing Up In Holyoke, Massachusetts

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

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

Grassroots Effort

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

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

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

An Often Considered Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

Urban Renewal In Bozeman: Fiber Required!

Bozeman, Montana, continues to move forward toward a future of fiber optics connectivity. Last we checked in, the community had formed a nonprofit, Bozeman Fiber, to own and operate the community network, had started to secure private funding, and were well on their way to their end goal.

City leaders have now approved an update to the Downtown Bozeman Urban Renewal Plan to allow Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as a way to fund the project. This is an important step to ensure that the fiber infrastructure project maintains a sustainable funding source.

Amending the Plan

Ten years ago the city adopted an ordinance creating the Urban Renewal Plan and the TIF districts. The plan uses 9 principles to guide the development and growth of the community. City leaders approved amendments to the ordinance this past December to better prioritize the current needs of businesses and residents. The amendment in question would add the importance of fiber optics to the first principle, “Strengthen Downtown’s Economic Vitality.” Brit Fontenot, Director of Economic Development, described the necessity of the changes (from local news station KTVM):

"A lot of commerce happens downtown. It's not just art galleries and restaurants. We also have things like hardware stores and high-tech companies. In order to keep up with the demand downtown, we need infrastructure that can accommodate and, in this case, it's fiber optics." 

Tax Increment Financing

By amending the ordinance, the city can more easily use TIF funding for the construction costs of the fiber network. The idea behind TIF is that a community can borrow against the future increases in the property tax revenue of the area where the particular project will be developed. We’ve reported on this funding method before: it has been considered in Sanford, Maine, and Wabash County, Indiana.

The Proposed Network

Since early 2014, Bozeman city officials have actively pursued plans for a fiber network to encourage economic development for the community. Most recently, Bozeman Fiber secured $3.8 million in funding from a partnership of eight local banks. Check out Community Broadband Bits Episode 142 for more details on Bozeman’s plan for an open access community network.

Task Force in Rural Connecticut Explores Community’s Appetite for Fiber

The newly formed Utilities Task Force in the City of Redding, Connecticut, is exploring the potential of bringing fiber connectivity to this rural town of about 9,000 people. Redding is about 65 miles northeast of New York City and just 25 miles north of Stamford.

As part of their feasibility analysis, the task force sent a survey to residents and businesses to gauge interest in bringing a fiber network to Redding. While the analysis is still ongoing, task force board member Susan Clark expressed optimism. “I’ve been energized by how many people have shown interest in this,” Clark told the News Times.

The task force believes if the survey reveals strong interest in the community for the nascent project, private Internet providers would be more inclined to help the community build the network. Community leaders hope that a new fiber network would attract new residents such as “knowledge workers” who depend on reliable, highspeed Internet access that allows them to work from home.

A second member of the task force, Leon Kervelis, told the The Redding Pilot that the task force has hopes the proposed network, if built, could eventually grow beyond Redding: 

“It’s not intended to be a single town project…we’d get several towns together in a conglomerate, and that municipal conglomerate decides procedures and financing for the infrastructure,” he said.

Kervelis also explained the task force’s proposed plan for how to pay for the network, saying residents and businesses would pay a small surcharge on their property taxes, a far cry from current rates:

“The benefit would be significant,” he added. “Some people are already paying $120 a month to the cable company. Compared that to an [estimated] $10 to the town of Redding. For businesses and residents, this would drastically cut the cost of communicating rapidly and instantaneously. This would be a vast improvement over the services currently available in town.”

Clark said she originally got her inspiration to pursue a fiber optic network project in Redding after learning about the state’s CT Gig Project. The project involves “a coalition of municipalities, state officials, and other interested parties committed to bringing high-speed, low-cost internet to all residents and businesses in Connecticut.” 

We wrote about the development of the CT Gig Project in early 2015. For more information on the goals and current happenings with the CT Gig Project, you can visit their website here.

Bradley County Urges Tennessee Lawmakers: High-Speed Internet Now!

Just this past week, we reported on the plight of Bradley County in Tennessee. Cut off from connectivity, families and businesses are considering leaving to nearby Hamilton County which has Chattanooga’s high-speed fiber network.

By a 12-1 vote, the Bradley County Commission urged the Tennessee legislature to pass a bill (Tennessee HB 1303/SB 1134) enabling public utilities to bring high-speed Internet to Bradley County residents. Current state law - right now embroiled in legal disputes - prohibits public utilities from expanding high-speed Internet access. 

Near-Unanimous Vote (12-1)

As reported in the Chattanoogan, the only naysayer to the resolution was the vice-chairman. He agreed that Charter and AT&T had failed to provide adequate Internet access to the county, but he expressed opposition to municipal networks. Although disagreeing with the resolution, he underscored how local control had disappeared with the current state law:

He said local governments at one time had leverage over providers when they had to come to them periodically for charters, but he said that control went away with the passage of the current law that he said was heavily lobbied.

The commissioners, however, felt that this vote was the only way forward. Some described how dependent their homes and businesses have become on Internet access, and others reiterated that the community suffered die to the lack of competition.

An Engaged Public Speaks Out

According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the meeting attracted enough residents to pack the room. The people of Bradley County see the importance of better access in their future. Blake Kitterman, president of the Bradley County Young Democrats, told the Commission:

“When Bradley County citizens succeed, we all succeed, and EPB broadband expansion means an interconnected community…It means opportunities for businesses to affordably advertise their products, and students to be able to take part in higher forms of learning.”

According to the Banner, the crowd applauded every point supporting the resolution. The loudest and longest ovation was in response to Commissioner Mike Hughes when he summarized sentiment about incumbent providers Charter and AT&T:

““They had their opportunity, and they failed,” Hughes said. “It’s time to open it up.”

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

Conduit Brings Connectivity in Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln, Nebraska, population 269,000, is making the most of a tough situation to improve connectivity and increase telecommunications competition; the city is doing it with conduit.

The state has severe restrictions that ban communities and public power companies from offering telecommunications services. Local businesses, government facilities, and citizens must rely on the private sector to keep them connected. Faced with that limitation, Lincoln city leaders are enticing private providers with an extensive, publicly owned conduit network.

Using Tubes to Draw in Partners

In 2012, the city invested $700,000 to install a conduit system that has since grown to over 300 miles across the city. Over the past three years, Lincoln has leased conduit space to multiple providers, including Level 3 and NebraskaLink, which offer a range of services to businesses and anchor institutions. NebraskaLink provides backhaul for Lincoln's free Wi-Fi, launched in 2014.

Mayor Chris Beutler recently announced that Lincoln will be partnering with provider number six, ALLO Communications. This local company plans to be the first provider to use the conduit to build its gigabit fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network to every home and business in Lincoln. The network is scheduled for completion in 2019. ALLO is based in Lincoln and offers telephone, Internet, and video to residents and businesses.

Smart Conduit Choices for Long Term Vision

Installing conduit is a major expense when constructing an underground fiber network. Communities which take advantage of opportunities to install conduit during excavation projects, traffic signal upgrades, and development projects, will save in the future if or when those communities decide to move ahead with fiber installation. In addition to reducing deployment costs, existing conduit reduces the number of disruptions that occur when multiple providers want to bring services to a given area.

Local coverage of Lincoln's new partnership: