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Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”  

Charlotte Media Eyes Salisbury's Fibrant

WSOC TV in Charlotte recently looked at Salisbury's four-year-old Fibrant network. Reporter Tenikka Smith investigated what a municipal network could do for Charlotte. Charlotte is also one of the communities working with Google in hopes of having it expand to them. That interest has led AT&T to consider updating its comparatively pathetic DSL services as well.

Smith spoke with a Salisbury small business owner who switched to Fibrant in 2010. Rick Anderson-McCombs of the Sidewalk Deli noted fast speeds and high quality voice service from Fibrant. According to Anderson-McCombs' mother, Angenetta Dover, the deli also saves $30 - $40 per month compared to past service with the local incumbent. Dover also uses the service at her home and notices a significant improvement:

"Even (the) lowest speed and slowest speed is super compared to what we used to have to do," she said.

Robert Van Goen from Rowan County's economic development coalition, Rowan Works, believes a municipal network could be a smart investment for Charlotte. The network tells potential job creators that a community is "prepared to do business for the next 10, 15, 20 years and compete in the global marketplace."

WSOC TV compared prices; they found Time Warner Cable and AT&T offered basic triple-play bundles - up to 6 Mbps download - for $79 per month. Upload speeds, the real test for businesses, are typically much slower. Fibrant's lowest tier triple-play bundle offered 20 Mbps symmetrical service for $97 per month.

Saving money for better service is always a winning strategy. Local businesses often consider other benefits from municipal networks; Anderson-McCombs told Smith his motivation reached beyond financials:

“The main reason I got Fibrant was not so much to help my business, but help my town because I think it's very progressive of Salisbury to include Wi-Fi and Internet service in our utilities."

Below is an ad Fibrant created with local businesses describing the superior service of Fibrant phone. Though residents may be less enthusiastic about phone service, it is the lifeblood of many local businesses.

Video: 

Home Security Firm ADT Opposes Kentucky Bill to Eliminate Landlines

In February, we reported on another attempt by AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell, to eliminate plain old telephone service (POTS) in Kentucky. According to Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group, AT&T's SB 99 is quickly moving ahead and may even be up for a full House vote at any time.

Kentucky has fought to save its landlines for three years in a row. Many of us only think of landlines as a way to speak with loved ones, but for the isolated, elderly, and those that face daily health hazards, a landline is also a lifeline.

We recently learned that home security firm ADT submitted a letter opposing the passage of SB 99 because many business and residential customers rely ADT's technology designed for traditional landlines. Even thought the letter is dated March 4th, it only recently came to light. The letter states:

Many of our customers, like the one who alerted ADT to this bill, rely on POTS to carry alarm signals to and from monitoring companies like ADT.  Some also use POTS for their Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) and medical alert services.  ADT accepts that the transition from POTS is a natural progression towards new technology, and is actively working to develop best processes and an acceptable timeline where POTS is discontinued; however, the safety of everyday Kentuckians could be jeopardized if this is not done in a pragmatic, thoughtful way.

Kentuckians can weigh in on this bill by calling the toll free message line at 800-372-7181 and tell House leadership and their legislator to oppose SB 99.

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

Kansas Community Benefits from Community Owned Networks

Even though the Kansas cable lobby have temporarily retracted their competition-killing telecom bill, we still want to highlight the benefits of preserving full home rule, local authority by focusing on a number of communities, including Chanute, Ottawa, and Erie.

Chanute

We have reported on Chanute's municipal network for years. The community leveraged its electric utility assets and incrementally built an extensive publicly owned gigabit fiber network. Over several decades, the community expanded its network to serve schools, libraries, local government, and businesses. Chanute took advantage of every opportunity and created a valuable asset with no borrowing or bonding.

Several business, including Spirit AeroSystems, chose to locate in Chanute because of its incredible fiber network. Spirit brought approximately 150 new jobs. The network also retained jobs when incumbents refused to provide needed upgrades to local businesses. Rather than leave town, the businesses connected to the City's network and increased their productivity. 

Former City Manager J.D. Lester referred to municipal broadband as “the great equalizer for Rural America,” saying: “You don’t have to live in Kansas City to work there.” (See our case study Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to A Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage [PDF])

Kids in Chanute have access to connectivity other schools can only dream about. The local community college has expanded its distance learning program with higher capacity broadband. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are all over town; money otherwise sent to distant providers stays in the community. Chanute has invested in a WiMAX wireless system that serves public safety all over the region, not only in town. Their other utilities use the network for automatic metering and SCADA applications, saving energy and allowing customers the chance to reduce utility bills.

Chanute Logo

In addition to savings public dollars by reducing the cost of municipal connectivity, the broadband utility generates $600,000 and contributes 5 percent of that to the general fund.

Community leaders recently began planning for a FTTH expansion to bring fiber Internet to every home in town. If SB 304 finds its way into the books, those plans will be derailed and residents will be left with slow cable and DSL access.

Erie

Erie, southeast of Chanute, also utilizes Chanute's extensive fiber network for affordable school connectivity. When it was time to upgrade, Erie approached incumbent Cox. Cox's proposal for 100 Mbps to the high school alone was $5,000 per month. With its microwave network, Chanute is able to provide Internet service to the Erie community where already fiber connects the school facilities. Chanute serves Erie's high school, grade school, administration offices, and the bus barn where students learn auto mechanics. Like Chanute schools, Erie is guaranteed 100 Mbps but able to burst up to 300 Mbps when capacity allows. Erie pays only $5,100 per month and 80% of its connectivity fee is reimbursed by the federal E-rate program.

Ottawa

Inspired by Chanute's success, nearby Ottawa launched its fiber network in 2013. Ottawa joined forces with its school district and county government. Ottawa used an existing patchwork school district and county fiber, linking them together as a community network backbone. Each entity retained ownership of their resources but shared fiber strands with the City.

Ottawa businesses were dissatified with services from incumbents who were not interested in upgrading. Choices were expensive and slow T1s or an uber expensive DS3. Multiple appeals to incumbent AT&T yielded no results.

Schools, the area community college, and a farmers' cooperative connect to the network for better capacity and lower prices than AT&T will offer. The school district has cut its connectivity fees in half from $6,000 per month to $3,000 per month, by switching to Ottawa as a service provider. They now receive double the speed they used to purchase because the community network takes a much different approach than AT&T. From our April 2013 article on Ottawa:

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community it a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

Danger of "Sponsored Data" via AT&T, Others

AT&T has announced a program that has put many of us on edge - "Sponsored Data." As an example, I may have a 500 MB cap on my monthly AT&T plan, but Facebook could pay AT&T so that its content does not count against my cap. Both Free Press and Public Knowledge have taken strong stands against the program, arguing that the FCC should not allow it. And the L.A. Times explains that it won't save consumers any money.

But those who defend the program argue that it is nothing more than a modern day 1-800 number, where the other party pays for the call. I find the argument unpersuasive.

For decades, 800 numbers were a fraction of calls made. Most phone calls have been local in nature, so even if 800 numbers were a substantial amount of long distance calls, it didn't really impact how we used our phones. By contrast, here AT&T will be targeting the most common applications on the Internet, further centralizing power among those with deep pockets to build a moat around their services and hamper innovation.

Additionally, we had unlimited local calling in combination with tolled long distance. If all calls were tolled individually, the 800 number would be a more appropriate comparison. All data counts against the monthly cap except for companies that pay to exempt their data. So if you have a choice between two video streaming services, which would you pick? The one that runs up your AT&T bill more or the one that doesn't?

Finally, with this "pay to play" program, the big wireless carriers have a strong incentive to keep data caps low because if companies like Facebook, Google, and others are willing to pick up the tab.

The whole approach may harm innovation in ways that were spelled out quite well on AVC:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a better streaming music service. It leverages the data on what you and your friends currently listen to, combines that with the schedule of new music launches and acts that are touring in your city in the coming months and creates playlists of music that you should be listening to in order to find new acts to listen to and go see live.

VC: Well since Spotify, Beats, and Apple have paid all the telcos so that their services are free on the mobile networks, we are concerned that new music services like yours will have a hard time getting new users to use them because the data plan is so expensive. We like you and the idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

This isn't the make-believe world of Chicago economists. It is a world where making it big means finding investors - and investors rarely want to go after massive corporations with moats around their products. This is the same reason investors rarely see any prospect of making a quick buck by competing against Comcast.

Network Neutrality Decision and Importance of Community Owned Networks

In a decision announced a few hours ago, the DC Circuit of Appeals has largely ruled against the Open Internet, or network neutrality. These are rules established by the Federal Communications Commission to prevent massive ISPs like Comcast and AT&T from degrading or blocking access to certain sites on the Internet. Decision here [pdf].

The goal is to prevent these big firms from being able to discriminate - to pick winners and losers. For instance, Comcast could charge subscribers an extra $10 per month to access Netflix while not charging to visit similar sites that it owns. The rules were intended to prevent that.

However, the FCC has a history of decisions that have benefited big telecom corporations more than citizens and local businesses. Those decisions limited how it can protect the public interest on matters of Internet access.

This court decision decided that the way the FCC was attempting to enforce network neutrality was not allowed because of how it has decided to (de)regulate the Internet generally. In essence, the FCC said that it didn't want to regulate the Internet except for the ways it wanted to regulate the Internet. And the Court said, somewhat predictably, that approach was too arbitrary. Moving forward, the FCC has the power to enforce this regulation, but it will have to change the way the Internet is "classified," in FCC lingo - which means changing those historic decisions that benefited the big corporations.

Groups like Free Press are pushing to make this change because it will ensure the FCC has the authority it needs to ensure everyone has access to the open Internet.

The lesson for us is that communities cannot trust Washington, DC, to ensure that residents and local businesses have universal, fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Communities should be investing in themselves to build networks that are accountable to the public and will not engage in anti-consumer practices merely to maximize their profits. Such behavior is inappropriate on matters of essential infrastructure.

Even if the FCC now gets this right and protects the public interest, that may last only as long as this FCC is in power. Communities that trust the FCC to protect them in this matter of incredible importance to their local economy may find that with a new administration, companies like Comcast have a free hand to again insert themselves as a tollbooth between subscribers and the Internet.

As a final word, this is nothing new. In putting together the Standard Oil monopoly, Rockefeller knew the value of cutting special deals with the railroads to benefit his firm at the expense of any potential competitor. When the Schuylkill Canal was built in Pennsylvania, the state decreed that the canal owner could not have an interest in mining, because the ownership of the canal meant it could disadvantage any competitors that needed to use it to ship their materials.

Network neutrality is a common sense regulation so long as we have to deal with monopolies like Comcast - we cannot stand to let Comcast or any other firm impose itself as a gatekeeper between us and anyone with whom we want to communicate or do business.

Addendum: Thanks to Harold Feld for noting that the opinion reinforced the FCC's Section 706 authority, which we believe could be used by the FCC to strike down state laws that limit local authority to build networks:

As we explain in this opinion, the Commission has established that section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 vests it with affirmative authority to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Read our further coverage of how this decision impacts muni networks.

Auburn Essential Services; A Workhorse in Northeast Indiana Saves Jobs, Serves Public

In 1985, Auburn Electric became one of the first communities in the midwest to deploy fiber. At the time, the purpose was to improve electric and voice systems substation communications within the municipal utility. That investment laid the foundation for a municipal network that now encourages economic development and saves public dollars while enhancing services.

Auburn expanded its fiber network beyond electric systems in 1998. The utility began using the network to serve city and county government operations. It is not well known, but Auburn offered gigabit service to its public sector customers way back in 1998.

The benefits from the deployment prompted community leaders to develop an Information Technology Master Plan in 1998 that would answer the question of what other ways the fiber could serve the community? As part of the Master Plan, Auburn leaders collected information from other communities that were capitalizing on their own local fiber. While Auburn made no immediate plans, they kept an open mind, waiting until the time was right.

In 2004, Cooper Tire and Rubber (now Cooper Standard) was about to be sold from its parent company. The $1.6 billion auto component manufacturer needed a data center but bandwidth was insufficient and inconsistent in Auburn. Cooper considered leaving because the incumbents, Mediacom and AT&T, could not or would not provide the broadband capacity the company needed. If Cooper left town, an estimated $7 million in wages and benefits from 75 high-paying tech jobs would also leave. At the time, Auburn was home to 12,500 people.

County Courthouse in Auburn, Indiana

According to Schweitzer, the City tried to persuade the telephone company to find a solution with Cooper but the two could not reach an agreement. Rather than lose Cooper, the City of Auburn stepped in to fill the connectivity gap in 2005.

In a 2007 interview with Public Power magazine, Schweitzer noted advantages in Auburn that facilitated the project:

“We also had a major tier-one Internet provider with a point of presence in Auburn, so we had some primary pieces in place to affordably and quickly extend business-class Internet service to this customer. We were preparing for this growth, but the trigger was this company that was going to leave unless we could serve them,” Schweitzer said. 

Shortly after connecting Cooper Standard, Auburn began serving several other businesses. The success of the venture lead to a feasibility study which included a market survey. The results showed residential and commercial interest in a municipal network, encouraging Auburn Electric to ask the community for guidance on how to proceed. From the 2007 interview:

“Our town hall meetings were very open,” said Schweitzer. “This broadband effort is about our community, and our community has told us we need to pursue this important project. We have tried to do a thorough job of communicating with customers to determine their needs as we moved forward.”

In pursuing the high-speed broadband project, the city follows the same philosophy it has used for other city infrastructure projects, Schweitzer said.

“We have good communication with the community, as this is a grass roots effort, rather than a top-down approach,” Schweitzer said. “We are also doing due diligence in all new areas we encounter. We aren’t making any assumptions on this project. The only thing we would like to do differently is to move more quickly on the project, but we know our steady approach will serve us well.”

Auburn Electric, the owner of the network, operates and maintains the fiber infrastructure. The utility expanded the network incrementally to serve its core business. The network is approximately 205 miles and cost approximately $12 million for fiber and electronics. Auburn Electric uses the network for Advanced Metering, SCADA, and smart grid applications. Auburn Essential Services (AES) leases fiber from Auburn Electric to offer customers data, voice, and video services.

Auburn Essential Services Map

The electric utility created AES as a sub-department to operate the electronics that provide telecommunications services. In order to purchase the electronics to light up the network, AES borrowed $2.5 million from Auburn Electric via an interdepartmental loan in 2005. Within seven months, AES was cash flow positive.

By 2007, AES was also serving small business and residential Internet and phone needs. In 2012, the utility started offering television service. The network has passed approximately 6,500 properties after eight years of incremental expansion.

In a recent interview on the Broadband Bits podcast, Schweitzer told Chris Mitchell the network has helped keep local prices in check. Residential Internet prices vary from $22.95 (1.5 Mbps/512 Kbps) to $169.95 (55 Mbps/10 Mbps) per month. AES does not use pricing gimmicks, reinforcing the philosophy that every customer matters. From the podcast interview:

"We are not going out there trying to lure customers with the lowest price," says Schweitzer,"we going out there to serve the community with a healthy, sustainable, quality product."

AES kept the public informed of how the build was proceeding with interactive maps, available here. This kind of transparency is well in keeping with the traditional of community ownership of infrastructure.

LightTUBe Financially Secure in Tennessee

Tullahoma Utilities Board's triple-play FTTH LightTUBe, began serving Tullahoma in 2009. The fiber network utility is paying off its city bond debt on schedule reports the Tullahoma News.

The network's income during the first four months of fiscal year 2014 is a positive $58,939. General Manager Brian Skelton spoke with Chris Mitchell in July 2013 and expressed confidence that that network will continue to operate in the black. The News reported on our podcast interview with Skelton and provided some recent updates:

With an estimated potential customer base of 9,000 in the TUB service area, LightTUBe services 3,201 fiber customers. That number is slightly ahead of goal (3,186) and represents nearly 36 percent market penetration against primary competitor Charter Communications.

Tullahoma deployed its network to encourage economic development. In 2011, we reported on J2 Software Solutions. The company located its headquarters in Tullahoma because LightTUBe offered fast, reliable, affordable service. 

According to the News article, expenditures on Internet service remain consistent while subscriptions grow. The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) only recently approved a $7 rate increase for video service due to an increase in the cost of television content. When content rates rose in the past, TUB chose to absorb the increase but the cost of content continues to increase for all providers. Since 2009, TUB increased Internet service speeds five times without increasing prices. From the article:

”LightTUBe is in a very comfortable position from a financial perspective. Our biggest concern at this point is the unreasonable price increases that we (and others in the video business) are seeing from many of our channel providers,” said Skelton.

That comfortable financial position appears to rest largely on the shoulders of LightTUBe’s Internet service.

While video and telephone services together generate enough income to offset the system’s net maintenance and depreciation costs, Internet services generate enough income to offset its additional customer service, sales, administration and debt costs.

Unlike the private providers it competes against, Tullahoma is limited in where it can offer service. State law prevents it from serving customers outside its electrical territory - something AT&T and Comcast lobbyists have preserved year after year by killing bills that would remove this damaging law. Across Tennessee, local businesses, residents, and anchor institutions are stuck with slower, less reliable connections despite desiring expansion from the nearby utility but they are denied.

Because Tennessee law prohibits municipal utilities from providing their fiber services outside of their electric service territory, LightTUBe cannot offer its 1G Internet to – for example – the Coffee County Joint Industrial Park, which is serviced by Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative (DREMC). The joint park, located five miles northeast of Tullahoma and outside of TUB’s service area, has cable-based Internet service.