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Upper Arlington, Ohio Forges Ahead with Public Partners on City-wide Fiber-Optic Network

The City Council of Upper Arlington, Ohio on Oct. 26 approved several contracts that will enable the community to build a municipal fiber-optic network to key anchor institutions for an estimated $2.5 million.

Upper Arlington’s project will provide high-speed Internet service for the city’s buildings, the Public Library, Upper Arlington city schools, and most city parks according to a news report from the Upper Arlington News. The 30-mile fiber network will serve about 40 locations around the boundaries of the city (population 34,000).

Besides establishing better connectivity between the three public partners’ buildings, the network is expected to provide opportunities for commercial companies to lease telecommunications services. The network would allow the city to lease some of the 288 fiber strands to commercial companies, such as other Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Financing and Break Even

Under the cooperative arrangement, the library will contribute $17,616 annually, the city $68,484 per year and the school district $177,900 each year until the project is paid off. “These costs are derived from the amounts that each entity is currently paying for leased broadband connectivity between their facilities,” Upper Arlington Assistant City Manager Dan Ralley told us. 

The period anticipated to pay off the network construction is nine years with the school district and library able to extend the parties’ shared-services agreement for an additional 15 years after. The extensions would occur in three five-year segments.

Cost savings, broader bandwith

Ralley says the primary benefits of the new city fiber-optic network will be significantly lower long-term bandwidth and broadband access costs.  For example, the city of Upper Arlington expects to save about $1,280 a month for Internet service by building its own fiber network. Over 10 years, the city’s savings would total about $150,000.

And the municipal network will be a boon for the Upper Arlington public schools. In an Oct. 19, 2015 staff report, Ralley said:

Upper Arlington Schools’ available bandwith capacity is a growing concern given the current and future 21st century learning initiatives that are premised upon the use of technology. With increased bandwith between buildings, the potential for ubiquitous computing is possible along with more collaborative learning tools delivered through online learning management systems.

Network will enable access to two major data centers

Another benefit: the new network will enable Upper Arlington to “gain direct access to two different data centers located on the periphery of our community,” Ralley told us. Those are “the Ohio Supercomputing Center and a private facility owned by Expedient that will allow us to locate our servers in a carrier neutral facility that has redundant power feeds and lower broadband access costs,” he noted. 

“Expedient can provide the City an internet connection of 30 Mbps which is burstable to 100 Mbps at a much lower cost than our current provider,” Ralley said in his Oct. 19 staff report. 

New network incentive for economic development

Not to be overlooked, Upper Arlington’s new fiber-optic network is also expected to boost the community’s desirability for economic development.

“The number of businesses that are looking for access to affordable, high bandwith is increasing,” Ralley said in his staff report. He added:

While Upper Arlington does not have a large number of businesses that would typically utilize fiber optic data connections, we have attractive commercial development areas where access to available fiber can be used to attract businesses that require large bandwith. The City could leverage the community fiber optic network for economic development incentives or use it to help lower the cost of operating a business in UA, thereby providing a competitive advantage.

In one case, the city will be providing dark fiber to a new Ohio State University Medical facility that is currently under construction, Ralley told us. That arrangement is a condition of a $500,000 grant that the state of Ohio has given Upper Arlington to build its fiber-optic network. Dark fiber, fiber-optic cable currently not in use, is particularly important for medical centers because it offers more control over network quality and allows for very fast networks at affordable budgets. 

Also the city will be entering into an IRU (Indefeasible Right of Use) with the fiber construction contractor Thayer, that will enable them to market and sublease fiber strands by other third parties, he said.

Given the direction of the Upper Arlington broadband network, the community will be getting a system that will have many potential benefits but little risk with the city serving as its anchor tenant.

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Moving Forward

After multiple delays, the much anticipated Roanoke-Salem fiber network in Virginia has its feet on the ground. The network has secured an executive director who will provide greater project oversight and find Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate on the open access network.

Now that the project is under way, it is moving at a rapid pace. The Broadband Authority already secured a contract for $2.9 million to lay the conduit for the fiber optic cable, and crews are already at work. By year’s end, the project should finally be complete.

Two years ago, a completion date seemed far-fetched. The cities of Roanoke and Salem and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt met to discuss the growing problem of poor Internet access in the region. The area had the reputation for being in a "doughnut hole" - too large to qualify for federal grants but too sparsely populated to attract investment from large telecom providers. The city of Roanoke, for instance, ranked 409th out of 429 US metropolitan areas for basic Internet access.

Officials knew the situation was bad for economic development. Affordable, reliable broadband access could help grow, and keep, local companies in the region and attract new businesses and institutions - especially the important textile and manufacturing jobs that had driven the local economy for generations. The two cities and two counties came together to fund a $50,000 study. The study recommended the creation a Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and a 60-mile, $8.2 million, open access network.

After the initial stage, disagreements between the entities complicated the project. Botetourt County already had open access fiber managed by Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation and felt additional redundancy from another fiber line was not worth the investment. Botetourt County Administrator Kathleen Guzi:

“We don’t believe we need the redundancy yet.” 

In Roanoke County, officials were hesitant to fund the network. Each government entity had agreed to provide $2 million to the project, and that presented a budget concern for Roanoke County. The county board also saw it as government encroachment on the private sector, distinct from an infrastructure project. Eventually, both Roanoke and Botetourt Counties withdrew from the project.

The cities of Roanoke and Salem expressed disappointment but acknowledged that they would move forward without the counties, according to Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess:

“If whatever we decide to do ends up going into a community that’s not fully participating, it’s still open access broadband for whatever business happens to be there. We’re not going to restrict anybody’s access to it. That’s the whole idea of this. We’re going to create something that’s open to every potential provider, every potential customer. It’s open access. That’s what it’s there for.”

After Botetourt and Roanoke counties withdrew, Roanoke and Salem entirely revamped the project. Scaling back the network to just 47 miles, they cut down the cost to less than $4 million. Salem's Municipal Electric Department uses existing fiber that can be integrated into the project, so the majority of the new fiber will run through Roanoke. Some of the fiber will still extend into parts of Botetourt and Roanoke counties.

The Virginia Resources Authority has issued a $6.2 million bond to cover the network’s construction and any unforeseen costs. Both cities have committed to repaying the debt on the bond until the network generates enough revenue to cover network costs and debt service. 

From philosophical disagreements to changing plans, it has been a long road for the fledgling Roanoke-Salem network. Now with an executive director and a $6.2 million bond, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority should complete the 47-mile, open access network by the end of 2015.

Roanoke Valley map from Foundation For Roanoke Valley

Grand Junction Asks "Fiber? Where?"

While other communities in Colorado are just starting to reclaim local control over their broadband futures, the city of Grand Junction has moved forward. In April, the people overwhelmingly overturned SB 152 – the state law that prohibited them from pursuing the best broadband solution for their community. Now Grand Junction is investigating its options.

The city council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) are in the process of hiring a consulting firm to develop a broadband strategic plan for the city of 60,000 and seat of Mesa County. One of the main tasks is to determine where to locate the fiber backbone of the proposed municipal network.

Where Will the Fiber Go?

In September, months after the vote, the city agreed to enter into a contract with the consulting firm. The city will pay for the majority of the cost – up to $83,000. According to DDA meeting minutes from September, the Authority will pitch in up to $16,000 [pdf].

The study will take two or three months and will look specifically at the pros and cons of a fiber backbone deployment through downtown Grand Junction. The downtown area houses many banks and businesses, as well as both city and county government buildings. Fiber would provide much needed high-speed connectivity for those facilities, reports the Daily Sentinel. Available office space, ideal real estate for tech firms, is also plentiful in downtown Grand Junction.

Next Steps

After the consultants complete the study, the city may choose to issue bids for Requests For Proposals (RFPs) from contractors interested in constructing the network. The DDA has a $1 million line of credit backed by the city and will take responsibility for the cost of installing fiber in the downtown area.

The hope is to encourage tech start-ups to come to Grand Junction, as the DDA Board Chairman Jason Farrington explained

“Any company that needed to play in that (world wide web) sandbox would have Grand Junction as a place to relocate.”

Baltimore City Council Ponders Options for Moving Muni Fiber Forward

Baltimore's City Council has decided it's time to move forward with a plan for city-owned fiber and they are putting pen to paper to get the ball rolling.

Since 2010, we have covered Baltimore's efforts to improve connectivity for businesses and residents. For a time, they expected FiOs from Verizon but when the provider announced it would not be expanding its network, Baltimore began to explore a Plan B.

Plan B included a publicly owned option, possibly making use of fiber assets already had in place. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has supported taking steps to improve connectivity for Baltimore's economy, education, and general livability. A crowd funding initiative from the Baltimore Broadband Coalition has raised over $20,000 and the community has commissioned several studies. Baltimore even has a city broadband czar.

City Leaders Push On

Members of the City Council have recently renewed the call to action. Council Member Mary Pat Clarke introduced a resolution in September calling on the city to quickly develop a broadband plan. The resolution calls for fiber to all homes, businesses, and institutions in Baltimore in order to bring better connectivity to low-income households, improve economic development, and improve options for anchor institutions

The resolution has been referred to the Departments of Planning, Transportation, Public Works, Finance, City Public School System, and is now in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology.

Westminster Inspires Immediate Action 

A recent Baltimore Sun article about the resolution reports that city leaders looked to Westminster for inspiration. With only 18,000 people, Westminster has struck up a partnership with Ting to provide gigabit connectivity to residents and businesses via its publicly-owned fiber network.

As a major urban center, Baltimore faces a different set of challenges but a recent study suggests that the city could use existing municipal fiber infrastructure as a starting point. The Inter-County Broadband Network, which includes at least 122 miles around Baltimore, can also be integrated into the city's efforts. 

In fact, two recent city-commissioned studies suggest investing to improve connectivity to attract the high-tech industry is a must. Otherwise, Baltimore will be left behind other communities that can provide the kind of high-speed environment companies require to bring new jobs to town.

Thirteen City Council members signed on to Clarke's resolution; it seems they feel the time to act is now. The resolution clearly states that the plan for a fiber network should not be delayed because "timely execution is critical."

"I'm sure we have enough studies now to do the unthinkable — move ahead," Clarke said.

In New England, Greenfield Votes For a Municipal Network Too

It wasn’t just Colorado cities and counties along with Iowa communities voting this week. Back east, Greenfield, Massachusetts also rushed to the polls to support local Internet choice.

Greenfield is planning to use a combination of fiber and Wi-Fi to deliver services - an approach that has had limited success in the past due to the technical limitations of Wi-Fi. 

The Vote

At Tuesday’s Annual Meeting, residents voted on the future of high-speed Internet access in the town. The referendum, the first step in creating a municipal broadband network, saw a landslide victory. 

The people gave a resounding message that they wanted to pursue a network: 3,287 people voted in favor; only 696 were opposed. According to the local paper the Recorder, this nonbinding ballot referendum allows the town to create a nonprofit to run the municipal broadband network. 

Currently there is a pilot program on two streets – giving residents a taste of community-owned high-speed Internet. This pilot program started in mid-October and provides free Wi-Fi on Main and High Streets. If voters had rejected the ballot referendum, the town would have ended the pilot program and only created an institutional network for the municipal and school buildings. Now, with the referendum passed, they can implement the plan for high-speed Internet access.

The Plan for Broadband

When the state built a middle-mile network running through the cities of Greenfield and Holyoke, the mayor contacted Holyoke’s municipal light plant to find out how to best utilize the opportunity. Holyoke is now the Internet Service Provider for City Hall and the police station. These will then serve as Internet access nodes for Greenfield’s new network.

The community's goal is to construct a 60-mile hybrid fiber-wireless network throughout the entire town by the end of 2016. The network will have a 10 Gigabit-per-second fiber backbone.  Now that the referendum passed, the project will go out to bid and construction will begin in early January. The total cost is estimated at about $5 million – the town intends to use revenues from the network to pay for the construction.

In an October, Mayor Martin described the community's initiative to replace the old infrastructure the community now relies on:

Martin said the goal of the project is to improve the business climate and quality of life in Greenfield. He said he wants everyone who wants high-speed Internet to be able to afford it.

We have yet to see a robust Wi-Fi network that actually sees meaningful adoption by households because the technology has such limited range and variable reliability. The result is that very few people are willing to pay for Wi-Fi connectivity, especially as they have come to expect higher capacity connections than a shared Wi-Fi network can deliver. We will be watching to see how Greenfield develops.

RFP in Erie County Means Big Broadband Plans in Upstate New York

In October 2015, government officials in Erie County, New York announced the release of a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking an organization to study the feasibility of building a county-wide broadband network. Located in upstate New York and home to over 900,000 people, Erie County stretches over 1,200 square feet; the county seat is Buffalo.

Legislator Patrick Burke notes that community broadband projects have become a rare kind of government-led initiative that appeals to people across all political divides:

“It covers all grounds and sort of goes beyond political ideology. It’s a quality service. It could provide revenues that the county desperately needs, it could attract business, it could spark economic development and it could create jobs. So, there’s a little bit in this for everybody,” said Burke.

Pursuing Governor Cuomo's "Broadband for All" Mission

The effort to pursue the option to build the network in Erie County comes after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released his “Broadband for All” plan earlier this year. The plan offers matching state funds up to $500 million to private companies that agree to help build broadband networks in underserved areas of the state. The governor’s initiative led the Erie County broadband committee and a group of industry experts to write an exploratory white paper considering ideas for expanding broadband in the region.

According to an article in The Public, Burke credits the white paper as the tool that convinced county leaders to issue the RFP to be ready when private partners come calling:

“Whichever municipalities or governments, or even private entities, are prepared and are in line to be competitive with this, they’re the ones who are likely to see the funds that are available,” Burke said.

West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 


The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

College Station Wants Competition: Finds It In Their Fiber

Elected officials hope competition via city-owned fiber will give businesses and residents some connectivity headway in College Station, Texas.

The community will lease its city-owned fiber to local ISP, WireStar, in order to foster local competition. City Councilmember James Benham told KBTX that community leaders want high-speed connectivity for businesses and residents and want to create a competitive environment to encourage affordable prices. He described incumbent Suddenlink as "not always the best fit," pointing to the need for high-speed access in multi-family dwellings.

WireStar will begin by offering Internet access up to 1 gig download to businesses and large apartment complexes. Expansion to single-family homes will depend on the demand. WireStar is taking a similar approach as iTV3 in Urbana-Champaign - asking potential subscribers to sign up at their website and offering service in areas that show demand.

WireStar will pay more than $21,000 per year plus maintenance fees to lease the city's fiber; the partners have agreed to a 10-year agreement.

The city, located in the east central part of the state, is home to approximately 94,000 people and part of the Bryan-College Station metro where about 229,000 people live. College Station is home to A & M, along with laboratories for a number of research entities such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. 

Benham told KBTX:

"Competition is good for prices and for consumers and for businesses and for this case having multiple choices is good for them."

Watch KBTX coverage:


Hudson Brings Velocity to Businesses in Ohio

In mid-September, Hudson, Ohio launched its Velocity Broadband service, bringing 1 gig connectivity to a large business complex. The commercial site is the first in series of industrial areas where the city officials plan to bring the network in the coming years. The community, located near Akron, hopes to eventually bring Velocity Broadband to residential areas.

The network is already exceeding expectations. Less than a month after the initial network launch, City Manager Jane Howington said local officials expect to surpass their goal of 50 customers by the end of 2015:

"It's moving faster than we thought," said City Manager Jane Howington. "Demand has been much greater than we thought."

Merchants are embracing Hudson’s new status as a “Gig City,” offering “Giga Specials” during the month of October and the city’s mayor declared October “Gigabit City Month.”

According to the city’s Broadband Needs Assessment, Hudson is building the network in response to significant problems with the city’s existing broadband options. Small and medium sized companies complained to the city’s consultants on the network that they have “learned to live with” problems of poor reliability, performance, and affordability of the city’s broadband services. They said even the best available broadband service options over DSL and cable are inadequate and negatively affect their ability to do business.

City officials plan to continue rolling out access to the city’s downtown area next year and to other business areas soon after. Although the city of 22,500 has no timeline on residential service, city officials have expressed the intent to eventually bring the fiber optic network to every home.

We first reported on Hudson's plans in July 2014 when the community began exploring the idea of using fiber from its existing I-Net to serve local businesses. Hudson will deploy incrementally with its own public power utility crews and will provide only voice and data services to keep expenses manageable.

At a City Council meeting on September 16th when community leaders announced the network launch, Howington explained the importance of the project for the city’s business community:

“When no one else would provide it, we decided to do it ourselves; it’s that important to our business base,” she said. “The City’s investment in Velocity Broadband will continue to change Hudson for the better, ensuring continuous success for the future of our community. We are taking speed, reliability and affordability to a whole new level…. It’s clear that fast, efficient Internet drives business growth which is key to economic vitality of our City.”

Sanford, Maine Plans Largest Municipal Network in the State

A lot has happened in Sanford, Maine since our last report on their municipal fiber optic network discussions. After a year of deliberations over different proposals, the city recently announced plans to begin building a 32-mile municipal fiber-optic network.

The city of Sanford is inside York County, situated about 35 miles southwest of Portland. The network will provide connectivity to businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and residences in Sanford along a limited route where there is sufficient customer density. City leaders plan to also provide a foundation for future expansion of the network to additional residential areas in the city. The network will be open access, allowing multiple ISPs to provide services via the publicly owned infrastructure.

The city will partner with Maine-based company GWI (Great Works Internet) to operate the network. Readers may recognize GWI as the same company working with Rockport, Maine's first community to invest in a municipal fiber network.

Once they complete the buildout, Sanford will be in an elite class of a just few cities nationwide that provide widespread access to 10 Gbps broadband. It is a bold plan for this city of just over 20,000 in a state that last year ranked 49th in the nation in average broadband speeds.

The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, a major driving force behind the project, sees the project as critical to their broader economic development efforts:

Like the growth council, this project is a public-private partnership stemming from the exploration of a best business model allowing for municipal investment and input while leveraging the strengths and expertise of private sector for-profit business. The growth council recognizes the collaboration of the public private partnership as the best means to accomplish the City’s economic development strategies.

The new network is also the first major loop in Maine that will connect to the state’s existing Three Ring Binder network. Constructed in 2012, the middle-mile Three Ring Binder spans 1,100 miles around much of Maine. The network was a product of private investments and $25 million in stimulus money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

According to a study commissioned by the Economic Growth Council, the network could generate between $47 million and $192 million in economic benefits over the next decade. The Economic Growth Council and the the city are still seeking funding to build the network, estimated at $1.5 million. The city expects to cover costs through agreements they’re pursuing with anchor institutions and savings they'll see by eliminating the cost of leasing lines to city government buildings and schools.

The city is also considering Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a process we described in a previous article about another network using the process:

“Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.”

A small number of municipal broadband projects have been funded with TIF, but this arrangement can be controversial as it removes substantial property value from the general taxbase. Most choose revenue bonds, interdepartmental loans, or by redirecting savings gained when city can build incrementally thereby avoiding payments for leasing lines from providers. Fortunately, Maine remains one of the states where local communities have the freedom to choose whether or not they invest in Internet networks and how they finance such a project.

At the meeting to announce plans for the network, U.S. Senator from Maine, Angus King, summed up the network's importance to the state's future:

“High-speed broadband is a gateway to economic and educational opportunity in the 21st century,” King said. “But right now, there are too many people who are denied those opportunities simply because they don’t have adequate Internet access.”