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Albany, NY Proposes Feasibility Study for Municipal Broadband Service

In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.

According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:

“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”

This news out of Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, comes as major gaps persist in high speed broadband access in many parts of the state. FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625K state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide

At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.

Estes Park Moves to the Next Phase; Considering Muni Fiber Network

Back in February, voters in Estes Park, Colorado, enthusiastically reclaimed authority to decide locally on a community fiber network. Now the community is moving ahead by taking a detailed look at deploying a municipal gigabit network.

BizWest reports that a consultant hired to study connectivity in the town of 5,800 recently recommended five possible solutions to the community's poor connectivity problem. The Town Board of Trustees considered a municipal telecommunications utility to be the most promising and passed the issue to city staff for further research.

“Now it’s up to us to thoroughly research the feasibility of the town establishing a broadband service utility, considering our financial and operational abilities and the best interests of the community’s future,” said Mayor Bill Pinkham in a media release.

The Estes Park Light and Power Division give this Rocky Mountain town an advantage because it already has electricity distribution infrastructure, utilty poles, and personnel in place. As part of a regional public power initiative, Estes Park also has fiber connecting it to nearby towns, giving it affordable backhaul to the wider Internet.

The consultant recommended forgoing any television or telephone services to focus on delivering high quality Internet access. The cost of deployment will be approximately $27 - $30 million. With a take rate of 30-40 percent, the community should be able to pay off the investment in 10 - 12 years. 

The consultant estimated monthly rates could run approximately $50 - $60 for 100 Mbps download and 1 gig per second for $70 - $95 (specific upload speeds were not mentioned). Businesses will likely pay approximately $150 - $180 per month for 100 Mbps and $300 - $400 per month for gigabit speeds.

In 2014, the community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. They had suffered significant damage due to flooding and the purpose of the grant was to seek out ways to diversify the local economy. Estes Park, very dependent on its tourist trade, has poor last-mile connectivity like many other similarly situated vacation destinations. Better connectivity is becoming a must-have for resorts and lodges, even in remote mountain areas.

Community leaders feel a fiber network might improve an already established tourist trade while ensuring future economic development opportunity for the entire region:

“It’s a game changer for us because we can attract year-round businesses that are location-neutral or IT software-development focused,” [President and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp., Jon] Nicholas said. “But it’s also a game changer for southwest Larimer County because home-based businesses would have access to 1-gig Internet as well as our hotels and downtown businesses.”

Staff anticipates offering a more detailed analysis of the recommendation some time in September.

Newark, Delaware Considers Municipal Fiber Feasibility Study

The City of Newark, population 30,000 and home to the University of Delaware, is considering commissioning a feasibility study but first will host a workshop to discuss the potential of a municipal network. City leaders want to bring together members of the community, broadband providers, experts, and municipal employees before it commits to the $10,000 study. 

Residents spoke at a recent city council meeting, demanding that the City inquire into the potential for a municipal broadband network, reported Delaware’s News Journal. Community interest led City Information Technology manager Josh Brechbuehl to research the City’s pre-existing Internet infrastructure, as well as speak with a wide array of broadband experts. Brechbuehl delivered a presentation to the city council on July 27 (transcript of the council meeting minutes here), during which he laid out his vision for bringing high-speed Internet to Newark:

Admittedly I started off pretty pessimistic about the opportunity and the possibility of achieving something like this, and I will say that through my research, I’ve become somewhat of a believer, a cautious believer, but definitely a believer that says this should be investigated.

The City currently has access to a wireless mesh network, but Brechbuehl believes fiber would be a better investment in the long term:

“We do have a WiFi network. It is very, very slow and that is by design. It was never designed to handle active devices such as smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptop computers...It was designed to carry very, very tiny bits of information a few times a day and that’s it,” he told the council.

Along with the wireless mesh network, used primarily for a smart metering system, the City could tap into pre-existing privately owned fiber networks, Brechbuehl noted in his presentation. Building its own fiber network is another option that would ultimately give the City more flexibility and autonomy going forward. Another option for Newark would be to provide free municipal Wi-Fi in public areas, such as on Main Street and public parks. Brechbuehl and others also have their sights on a potential partnership with the University of Delaware, which currently provides free Internet to the municipality in government facilities.

Deploying a city-wide fiber network would catapult Newark into a select group of forward-thinking municipalities, Brechbuehl states:

Doing something like this puts us on a map with very few other cities nationwide that said we could get this done.

New Municipal Broadband Feasibility Study Underway in Firestone, CO

The Board of Trustees for the city of Firestone, CO is evaluating the feasibility of a new municipal broadband service for this growing town of about 10,000 people that sits just 30 miles north of Denver. This according to a recent report in the Times-Call newspaper in Longmont, Colorado.  The feasibility study will compare Firestone’s existing telecommunications infrastructure with those in nearby communities such as Longmont and Boulder that already have municipal networks. It will also assess the potential for growth of the service in Firestone to a nearby 3,500-home community development project.

It would be travesty to build a 3,500 home development without having a plan for high quality Internet access. Even if CenturyLink or Comcast were to deploy fiber optics there, the community should ensure there are plans for conduit or an open network to allow multiple service providers to provide a real choice.

A 2005 Colorado state law barring municipalities from providing internet service to their citizens has been an obstacle for Longmont and Boulder in their pursuit of their own city-run broadband services.  Telecommunications companies in the Longmont area spent $200,000 on a campaign that helped defeat the referendum in 2009 and $400,000 more in 2011.  But citizens in Longmont successfully voted in the 2011 referendum to exempt their town from the law and build their own community broadband network. As we wrote in May, Longmont’s NextLight fiber-based municipal broadband service, which started just 2 years ago, is now among the fastest internet services in the United States.

In Boulder, 84% of citizens voted in a 2014 referendum to restore the local government’s rights to restore local telecommunications authority. The city now provides free municipal Wi-Fi throughout the downtown civic area and additional fiber-optic infrastructure servicing city facilities with plans for further expansion.

As the Longmont Times-Call wrote in December, Longmont’s struggles and eventual success in starting their own fiber-based municipal network helped to pave the way for Boulder.  The success of those efforts also provide favorable local precedents for Firestone officials and other local advocates to demonstrate how well fiber-based municipal networks can benefit a community. According to Firestone spokeswoman Kristi Ridder, the possibility of Firestone eventually getting its own municipal broadband service is still a ways off, with no ballot question planned yet on Colorado State Bill 152.  But she acknowledged that inquiries from residents have prompted town boards to discuss the possibility of a community broadband service over the past several years.

Rochester, Minnesota, City Council Reviews Municipal Fiber Proposal

Earlier this year, Rochester City Council members chose to look further at the prospect of developing a municipal fiber network. On August 17th, the Committee of the Whole met to hear a proposal from Alcaltel-Lucent to deploy 500 miles of fiber for approximately $42 million.

According to the Post Bulletin, the city recently surveyed 1,200 Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) customers and found that more than 75 percent of them supported the idea of Internet access from RPU.

Rochester residents and businesses have long suffered with expensive, unreliable, slow connectivity from incumbent Charter Communications. City Council member Michael Wojcik introduced the idea of publicly owned infrastructure in 2010 but the idea never picked up steam. He revived the issue last year when constituents began calling his office with complaints about Charter.

"Principally, I feel the technology, the customer service and price in Rochester are unacceptably bad (from Charter)," [Wojcik] said. "I get the feeling that a good portion of the public strongly agrees with that."

For this information session, the Council took no action; next, the proposal will be examined thoroughly by RPU officials.

Local video coverage from KTTC:

Ammon, ID Experimenting with Open Access FTTH Network

We have covered the small Idaho city of Ammon before, but the people there always seem to be innovating. A few weeks ago, the city took first place with an ultra-high speed app in a National Institute of Justice competition. That utlra-high speed came from the city’s fiber network built for municipal buildings several years ago. The network has since expanded to connect the schools and some businesses.

Now, residents of Ammon might also get to experience high speed Internet. The city is conducting a survey, called Get Fiber Now, to determine interest in building a unique open access network. The first area with a 70% take rate will have 300 homes added to the network.

Ammon's technology director Bruce Patterson has a plan to make this unlike any other open access networks in the world. The fiber will be partitioned to have multiple services (such as telephone and television) on one strand. Our Christopher Mitchell has called the idea "open access on steroids” and the "best shot at demonstrating what can be done as far as innovation on an open network.” Patterson now has a pilot project of about seven homes connected to the experimental network with symmetrical speed of 1Gbps.

The city intends to have the plans for the open access FTTH network finalized for this next spring and is looking at a 20- to 30- year bond to cover the costs.

Local news coverage has the rest:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Santa Cruz Fiber Project with Cruzio

Santa Cruz, California, and its 62,000 people with poor Internet connectivity near Silicon Valley, could be one of the larger municipalities to develop a citywide fiber network. The Santa Cruz Fiber project, which was announced on June 24, 2015, would be an open-access public private partnership (PPP) with the city constructing the network and a private company, Cruzio, serving as network operator. The plans are preliminary, but the announcement highlighted the project’s emphasis on local ownership: 

“A locally-owned, next-generation broadband network operated openly and independently and built for Santa Cruz, [the Santa Cruz Fiber Project] is uniquely tailored to fit the diverse needs of the Santa Cruz community.” 

Cruzio is one of the oldest and largest Internet service providers in California. Completely locally-owned and staffed, Cruzio is rooted in Santa Cruz County. The company’s name perfectly describes it. Cruz- from Santa Cruz and -io from I/O (Input/Output, communication between an information processing system and the rest of the world).  Our Christopher Mitchell is gushing over the name and says: “I seriously love it.”

Fiber is not a new commodity in Santa Cruz. Since 2011, Cruzio has installed fiber in several of its projects, and the fiber has wooed some 30 entrepreneurs and solo practitioners to stay in the downtown area at the Cruzio Works, a co-working space. Last November, Central Coast Broadband Consortium commissioned a study of the fiber networks in Santa Cruz (paid for with a grant from the California Public Utilities commission). They discovered more fiber under the city of Santa Cruz than in any other city in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito. Unfortunately much of it belonged to incumbent providers like Comcast and AT&T who are loath to lease dark fiber or make affordable fiber connections available to local businesses and residents. 

Then, just this past June, Comcast announced the planned rollout of Gigabit Pro near Silicon Valley, but not Santa Cruz. Even if Comcast changes its mind, the city has already found a local private partner in Cruzio. This local public-private partnership will almost certainly result in far more benefits to the community than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro. This network will be under local control and responsive to community needs.  

The intention of the partnership is to pursue an open access model. At first, the network will be solely a public-private partnership where the City of Santa Cruz will own the network and Cruzio will construct and operate it. During the initial stages, Cruzio will provide the expertise in network management that the city of Santa Cruz does not necessarily have. After a number of years, the network will open up to more service providers in order to promote competition, which is how Westminster has arranged its partnership with Ting in Maryland. 

The goal of the FTTH project proposal according to Cruzio is to connect 6,000 households and businesses by the end of the third year. Currently, the construction costs are estimated at $52 million. The City staff will present a report to city council by the end of this September on the potential Fiber Project’s feasibility. Early project estimates suggest the network would be mostly completed by late 2018. If the take-rate is feasible, the city intends to back the network with municipal revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are repaid through the sale of networking services, not through taxes. This ensures that those who use the network will pay for the network. Cruzio is now surveying residents to determine interest and creating an engineering report. 

Murfreesboro Wants to Use Existing Fiber for Better Connectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We are dedicated to fiber," Gibson said.

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

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

Baltimore for Broadband Op-Ed Demands Local Authority

On July 27 an important op-ed appeared in the Baltimore Sun to argue for the creation of a Baltimore Broadband Authority (BBA). Written by a cohort of three philanthropic organization presidents, two consultants, one broadband coalition leader, and one state senator, the op-ed echoed the calls of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and community groups, such as the Baltimore Broadband CrowdFiber initiative, who believe that in order for Baltimore to continue its development into a haven for young people, minimize pernicious digital inequalities, and ensure economic growth, the City must take charge of its fiber assets. As the authors wrote:

We urge the city of Baltimore to move quickly, but carefully, to create the much-needed Broadband Authority and act with all deliberate speed to devise a comprehensive, workable plan to move us forward.

The most recent op-ed comes in the wake of a series of moves by the City of Baltimore to study existing broadband infrastructure and adapt plans to expand access across the region. In June, the City released two studies to address increasing demand for broadband in areas that incumbent providers Comcast and Verizon have neglected (that being the vast majority of the city). One report, by the Smarter City Task Force, highlights the severity of the digital divide in the City of Baltimore:

There are no precise estimates of how many people in Baltimore lack access to broadband Internet. While national surveys suggest that about 20 percent of Americans do not have broadband at home or a smartphone, it’s reasonable to conclude that the percentage of Baltimoreans who lack broadband is higher. Baltimore has a large population of African Americans and people who have low incomes or low educational attainment – three demographic and socio-economic groups that nationally are significantly more likely to lack home broadband access.

The second report is more extensive than the first, including GIS maps of publicly-owned broadband assets ranging from dark fiber to wireless towers. Its policy suggestions include the creation of an open access network along the pre-existing Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN); leasing dark fiber assets to private entities; taking advantage of the Department of Transportation’s underground conduit lines; and installing more “vertical assets,” such as wireless towers and rooftops, to increase Wi-Fi availability.

In Baltimore, more and more individuals are becoming aware of the negative impacts of Verizon and Comcast’s practices regarding broadband deployment, and recognizing the importance of broadband to local economic development. Other Washington D.C. area communities - such as Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia - are currently in the process of launching their own community broadband projects. Same goes for Harford County, Maryland. Some forward-thinking Maryland communities, such as Howard County, MD have been working to increase fiber availability for years, as CIO Chris Merdon explained in a January Broadband Bits Podcast.

Residents like D. Watkins, who in 2014 published an op-ed in Vice’s Motherboard, “Life on the Other Side of the Digital Divide,” have also lambasted the City of Baltimore for its insufficient broadband infrastructure. “Public libraries are an option for free internet access,” he wrote, “but unlike liquor stores and churches, you can’t find one on every corner.”

The continued push for a Baltimore Broadband Authority by non-profit, philanthropic, and government leaders should help to create a space for further discussion of Baltimore’s digital inequalities, but it will also be crucial for these entities to work directly with local community leaders. Even as the City’s high-level fiber assets are leveraged, ground-level work with communities and incremental deployment strategies will be key to ensuring an equitable rollout of broadband technologies.

Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.