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Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

Medina County Offices Will Connect With Community Network

The newly completed Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN) in Ohio will soon add Medina County government as the next customer.

The Medina-Gazette reports the County Commission recently voted unanimously to enter into a five-year agreement with MCFN and drop Armstrong Cable. County Administrator Chris Jakab says the county will save $600 per month. Currently Medina County pays $3,300 per month and the new monthly fee will be $2,700 per month.

Apparently, Armstong Cable did not take the news well. At the County Commissioners meeting, Armstrong questioned the decision:

Minutes after the commissioners unanimously approved changing service providers, Armstrong’s General Manager Karen Troxell disputed Jakab’s figures.

Troxell said the Armstrong bill is made up of a $2,474 fiber-optic lease and an $826 Internet fee. She said the new agreement only covered the fiber-optic lease. She said the county still would have to pay for Internet access, which would bring the total bill to more than $3,500.

“I think this decision needs to be rethought,” she told the commissioners. “Or I need an explanation as to why you’re willing to pay more money for these services.”

Jakab said Troxell was mistaken, saying the fiber network’s $2,700 fee includes a $300 fee for Internet access.

The community recently celebrated completion of its 151-mile network, owned by the Medina County Port Authority. Last summer, the Highland School District connected to the network when its contract with Time Warner Cable ended. The move saves the school district approximately $82,000 in annual connectivity fees.

Business and community leaders began planning for the network 10 years ago as a way to spur economic development and create a more competitive telecommunications environment. A Port Authority revenue development bond issue and a stimulus grant administered by OneCommunity paid for the $13.8 million project. 

First BTOP Project Connects Rural North Georgia Communities

Back in December, 2009, Vice President Biden travelled to Dawsonville, Georgia, to officially kick off the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program. The first award, a grant of $33.5 million, went to the North Georgia Network Cooperative. The group combined that grant with local and state funding and in May, 2012, lit the North Georgia Network (NGN).

We spoke with Paul Belk, CEO of NGN, who shared the network's story and described how it is improving economic development while serving schools and government across the region. We also recently published a podcast interview with Paul Belk.

In 2007, Bruce Abraham was the Lumpkin County Development Authority President and could not recruit new business to the region. Atlanta is only 60 miles away but companies and entrepeneurs were not willing to branch out toward north Georgia. Business leaders repeatedly told Abraham they were not interested because of the lack of broadband. DSL was available from Windstream, but businesses kept telling Abraham, "That's not broadband." North Georgia was losing jobs and there was no strategy to replace them.

Abraham found economic development representatives from Forsyth, White, Union, and Dawson counties shared the same problem. With North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, the group decided to address the problem together.

In 2008, they received a OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. They used the $100,000 award to commission a feasibility study that suggested the area had potential as a new tech hub. The study also indicated that the region's traditional manufacturing and agricultural industries would continue to dwindle. The group, determined to pursue the establishment of a new tech economy, knew the first step would be next-generation infrastructure.

In 2009, two local electric cooperatives joined the group and it incorporated to become the nonprofit North Georgia Network Cooperative. With the addition of the Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Coops, the organization had access to technical expertise, equipment, and staff that could facilitate construction and operation of the future network.

Recovery Seal

Belk notes that the pieces fell into place for NGN throughout the process. The group applied for a grant during the first round of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The NGN Cooperative received a $33.5 million BTOP grant and an additional $2.5 million OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain also invested, bringing the final cost to $42 million.

Mostly aerial, the 1,100 mile network went up quickly (PDF of the network map). Construction began in March 2011 and was finished that same fall. On May 2, 2012, the network was officially lit in Lumpkin County where construction had started, completing the ring.

Unlike most other BTOP projects, NGN provides some last mile connectivity for small and medium sized business. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain work directly with customers, who can purchase connections between 1-10 gig. The backbone allows 100 gig transport.

Belk notes that NGN changed economic development in several ways. Before the network, local businesses learned to get by with little or no reliance on local connectivity. Tax professionals used to store files and transactions on a laptop and then drive to another community with better connectivity because DSL was not reliable or fast enough to transfer files. He describes their method as a "courier service." The NGN Cooperative continues to reach out to small and medium sized businesses to encourage adoption and show them how the network can expand their reach.

Belk told us about JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters. In the past, this small business relied exclusively on sales through its physical storefront and most sales were during the tourist season. Now the company sells gourmet coffee all over the country all year long beause it has reliable and robust connectivity. JumpinGoat is only one example of how NGN brings more money into the community.

Recently, NGN announced it will provide connectivity to a new data center built by Boston-based Standard Colo, in Lumpkin County. The initial investment in the community will be $10 million and community leaders expect the total investment to be $70-83 million in five years. 

Georgia seal

The investment will create 10-12 high paying positions in a community where average wage is $10 per hour. In addition to increasing the tax base, Belk sees this as a first step in transforming the area into the tech hub envisioned in 2008.

NGN also contributes to the community's efforts to prepare students to fill future tech jobs. Before NGN, Lumpkin County Schools had 3 bonded DSL connections and less than 20 Mbps to the Internet - now the District has 1 gig and access to the 10 gig cloud at no extra charge. Eight school districts and three colleges connect with NGN. The cloud allows schools to scale back on expenses for equipment, such as servers and video encoders, because each district can share across the cloud rather than purchase equipment for each location.

Eventually, the schools hope to eliminate textbooks and use the cloud as depositories for learning materials. Belk sees the schools breaking out of the "island" approach to pool their buying power for better prices on virtual learning material licenses.

Kids are entering college better prepared, says Belk, in part because the University of North Georgia and other local colleges provide credit to high school students via distane learning. The community wants to create an environment where, throughout their school careers, kids learn with technology and acquire skils to take advantage of the booming tech hub. Parents in north Georgia want to keep their kids close to home.

In addition to schools and businesses, seven local governments and five major medical centers use the network for connectivity. Belk notes that most financial institutions in the region also connect to the NGN. Users work directly through the electric coops to connect.

NGN's serves as a backbone for multiple carriers, reducing rates, encouraging choice, and prompting better service in a region that was left behind by large incumbents. The price of DSL has dropped $10 since the network launched. Belk says Windstream, who would not invest in the region in 2007, is "building fiber like crazy."

Belk feels his region is in a good position now, thanks to the network. While he can point to value in enhanced educational opportunities, healthcare advances, and business development, he believes the community gained most by avoiding loss. Belk notes that, like the interstate highway build out that determined what small towns would survive, broadband infrastructure establishes winners and losers. If you don't offer it, some other community will.

Medina County, Ohio, Celebrates Fiber Network Completion

Community leaders in Medina County, Ohio, recently celebrated the completion of the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN). Loren Grenson of the Medina Gazette reported on the celebratory breakfast event where officials proclaimed, “The monopoly is dead. Long live the fiber loop."

Local businesses already rave about the county owned MCFN, which offers Internet access, data tranport, and dark fiber leasing. From the article:

Automation Tool and Die in Brunswick is one of 20 entities already tied into the fiber network. The network provides better service to the company’s four buildings in Brunswick’s Northern Industrial Park, said Jacob Mohoric, company IT manager.

“It’s a blazing-fast Internet connection at all four of our buildings at an effective cost,” Mohoric said.

Company co-owner J. Randy Bennett said the network provided the first decent bandwidth for his company since it moved to Brunswick in 1983.

“We had no good bandwidth source and we paid through the nose for what we did have,” Bennett said.

Last July, the Highland School District was near the end of an expensive contract with Time Warner Cable. The network was not complete, but enough MCFN infrastructure was in place to connect the schools for Internet and phone service. Highland Schools now pay about $82,000 less per year for connectivity.

Community leaders began working on the project over ten years ago. After years of planning, the Medina County Port Authority (MCPA) secured $14.4 million in bonds and a $1.4 million stimulus award. The stimulus funding is part of a 2010 grant to nonprofit OneCommunity, charged with extending fiber to 22 Ohio counties. OneCommunity will manage the network.

The 151-mile asset belongs to the MCPA but the entire community considers itself an "owner." Bethany Dentler, executive director of the Medina County Economic Development Corp., also spoke at the celebration:

Dentler said the 151 miles of line through Medina County are a source of pride for the community and a unique collaborative investment in infrastructure.

“The best part is that this network belongs to all of us,” she said. “Not just the Medina Port Authority, not just the Medina County Economic Development Corp., but it’s a publicly owned network that belongs to the entire Medina community.”

Carroll County Explains Many Benefits of County Owned Fiber - Community Broadband Bits #43

Chief Information Officer for the Carroll County Public Schools Gary Davis joins me to explain why the Carroll County Government, Public Schools, Public Library, and Community College partnered to build their own fiber optic network. He is also the Chairman of the resulting Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) of Maryland.

The story starts the same as many others - the community anchors were paying too much and did not have access to the connectivity they needed. The telephone and cable companies (both massive international corporations) found higher returns on investment elsewhere and therefore could not justify improvements absent significant subsidy.

Gary explains the savings generated by the network and how it has benefited students attending the local schools. We recently covered the CCPN and its incredible savings for the community in a post here.

We also cover some basics of what some community anchor institutions need to ensure they can take advantage of modern technology.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

In Colorado, City of Durango Does Dark Fiber

This southwest Colorado community of about 17,000 contends with state barriers, but still makes the most of its fiber assets. We contacted Eric Pierson, Information Services Manager for the City of Durango, and Julie Brown, the City Finance Manager. The two shared some information on Durango's fiber network.

Currently, fifteen miles of City owned fiber run through town, providing connectivity for municipal and La Plata County facilities. Installation began in 1994 and the build-out continues. A combination of City capital improvement funds, grants from the State of Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DoLA), and funds from the Joint City/County Sales Tax fund have contributed to the $1.7 million network over the past twenty-one years.

Durango leases dark fiber to businesses and nonprofits to boost economic development and fund maintenance for the network. While dark fiber leasing could be far more lucrative, Durango's goal is to break even each year. According to Brown and Pierson, 2013 will yield about $10,000 to be shared with La Plata County and the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Mercy Regional Medical Center partnered with Durango to install fiber as its primary bandwidth connection. Mercy is now an important anchor institution for a large medical office complex in what used to be an undeveloped area. In addition to the clinic, new businesses and residents continue to expand in the area.

According to Brown and Pierson, local ISPs that lease the fiber to serve residents and businesses have increased bandwidth for customers. A significant number of professionals that live in Durango work from home.

Even though Durango is not able to freely expand the network due to state restrictions that limit how it can use the fiber absent a costly referendum, community leaders found a way to optimize their network for residents and businesses. And should the state be wise enough to repeal this anti-competitive barrier, Durango will be well positioned to benefit local businesses.

Carroll County Public Network Changes Education, Saves School Funds

Carroll County is a bedroom community, with a variety of economies all around it. Washington, D.C., Camp David, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Fort Detrick, and the Aberdeen Proving Ground are a few of the places surrounding Carroll County. There is very little major transportation infrastructure and no major waterways. Many of the county's 167,000 people commute daily to jobs outside of the bullseye.

Gary Davis, Chief Information Officer at the Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) and Chairman of the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) started at the school district in 2002 and immediately recognized that the telecommunications arrangement was insufficient.

Schools and other facilities were connected to the hub via 1.5 Mbps T1 connections and the whole wide-area-network was connected to the Internet via an expensive Frame Relay DS3 connection. The total cost ran as high as $600,000 per year.  

When CCPS approached Verizon about increasing bandwidth, Verizon’s proposal was extremely cost-prohibitive. Verizon wanted a long-term commitment that resulted in more than 10 times their current costs. Basically, Verizon would own the network but capital costs would be funded by CCPS and maintained with ridiculously high recurring fees. The return on investment for Verizon was just too low owing the the community demographics.

At that time, Davis met Robert Wack of the Westminster City Council and the two compared notes. Davis' vision for Carroll County Public Schools and Wack's ideas for Westminster and Carroll County were very similar. Both involved a high-speed network and Westminster is currently involved in its own municipal network project (to be covered in an upcoming post).

A 2003 feasibility study on telecommunications upgrades for the school and a second broader feasibility study for the entire county in 2005 resulted in a loose confederation between CCPS, Carroll County Government, Carroll Community College, and the Carroll County Public Library system. Davis is proud of the fact that the CCPN has broken through past silos. The public sector has worked together in Carroll County, preventing the rampant duplication of efforts that used to be the norm. 

Davis says the first focus was on improving educational opportunities with the network. The four entities were able to work together as the CCPN to secure better pricing by leveraging economies of scale. Carroll County applied $7.4 million from its capital project fund to get the project started, the original estimate in the 2005 feasibility study. CCPS also applied funds from its technology budget that had originally been earmarked for upgrades to phone switches.

Carroll County Schools Logo

Switching from the old telephone system to a VoIP system for the district's approximately 1,000 phone lines amounts to about 40% of today's savings at CCPS. Davis estimates annual savings to CCPS to be around $400,000, which also factors in costs associated with the network. Turning off old T1 connections and abandoning the pricey DS3 connection also contribute significantly to annual savings. Connections between district facilities now vary between 1 and 10 gigs.

Reducing spending is great, he says, but what really matters is the way the network improves the ability to educate. The old T1s and DS3 would not have been able to deliver the bandwidth for applications educators use today. For example, CCPS is experimenting by using the network to connect kids across the county who want to participate in Advanced Placement classes. These classes might not be offered otherwise because there may not be enough students at one location. In the pilot program, several students from schools across the county participate through video streaming, concentrating educator efforts and creating a more vibrant learning experience.

CCPS shares a 500 Mbps Internet connection with the local public library, ten times faster than the old DS3. The public library is also on a separate power grid, which makes it attractive as a secure back up data center for the school district, Carroll County Government, and Carroll Community College.

As the network has expanded, the CCPN has used a variety of funding. A state awarded BTOP grant, with matching funds from the county economic development fund, added to the original school district and county investment. Davis estimates that the county has invested about $12 million over the course of 10 years.

The network now consists of three rings with the fourth central ring in Westminster, the county seat. "Spokes" lead out to the southern end of the county, where community leaders hope to connect with Frederick or Baltimore County. Eight municipalities use the network's 110 miles of fiber over 450 square miles in Carroll County. There is one school in the northern part of the county that is not connected with fiber but uses high speed wireless supported by the fiber.

The network has changed education in Carroll County and done so with significant savings. Davis acknowledges that the change came about through the work of the CCPN Administration, which he describes as an ideal model. "Each member organization contributes its leaders' expertise and what all members CAN do together, they DO do together," says Davis.

For CCPS, the results speak for themselves.

Moultrie City Manager Discusses Origins of CNS Network in Georgia for Community Broadband Bits Episode 39

Mike Scott, City Manager of Moultrie in Georgia, joins us for Episode #39 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to share the origins of the Community Network Services (CNS) network that joins four towns in four counties in rural southwest Georgia.

In this interview, Mike Scott shares some of the benefits of the network for local schools and community savings. Built originally because the existing cable and telephone companies would not invest in their communities, CNS has proved itself an incredibly valuable community investment.

CNS is credited with creating over 6,000 jobs in the communities it serves, a tremendous boon for the communities that joined together to create this network. During our interview (below), we note a video they created to show off some of the benefits of this network. Here it is:

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

OneCommunity Helps More Ohio Towns Take Advantage of Fiber

In Cuyahoga County, OneCommunity is leading the effort of upgrade the County's networking ability. With a special focus on improving pubic safety, the project is estimated to save the county $10 million over the next 5 years. From the OneCommunity blog:

The project provides high-bandwidth connectivity and secure video conferencing to more than 60 county offices and public safety locations; will provide wireless high speed Internet to the Justice Center, Courthouse, and Administration Building; and will equip County employees with mobile wireless access.

In addition, the Cuyahoga Regional Information Services (CRIS) emergency system is now available in public safety vehicles, enabling law enforcement officers to pull up criminal records while out in the community.  Cuyahoga Community College benefits from this public safety broadband connection as emergency personnel can use CRIS to help coordinate response efforts.

In Mayfield Village, a new network is being installed by OneCommunity in a city-owned office and industrial area. Mayfield Village anticipates this new resource and its high capacity will bring new businesses to its facility on Beta Drive.

Mayfield Village Planning Development describes the service:

The Mayfield Village fiber optic network is a new facet of our Beta Drive commercial district. The network is intended by the Village to save our businesses substantial amounts of money on their internet and other IT costs. Mayfield Village not only partnered with regional dark fiber organization OneCommunity to install the fiber, but the Village and OneCommunity have teamed up to offer very competitive internet service prices to companies wishing to connect to the network.

Rexburg, Idaho, and Surrounding Counties Commit to Feasibility Study

A collaboration between local Idaho and Wyoming counties, the town of Rexburg, Idaho, and Brigham Young University will be exploring the possibility of a community owned fiber optic network. Significant business interest in the project has contributed to the decision to move forward with a feasibility study.

According to a Standard Journal article, Design Nine has been hired to conduct the study which will look at what networks are currently in place and provide a detailed plan for future development. The $78,000 study, to be completed in May, is funded in half by a federal grant with the remaining paid for by public and private donations. 

Fremont County, Idaho; Madison County, Idaho; Teton County, Idaho; and Teton County, Wyoming are all participating and together obtained the federal grant. According to the City of Rexburg Department of Economic Development website on the fiber initiative:

Rexburg's City Council recently (June, 2011) passed an initiative to facilitate the availability of broadband internet in Rexburg. High-speed broadband internet, as referred to in this initiative, is a fiber-optic connection with download speeds exceeding 1,000 bytes per second (1 Gbps). Private businesses have requested for upgraded services, but these requests have not yet been met. Accordingly, citizens and city officials have established the Rexburg Community Access Network Initiative. High-speed broadband means smart growth for Rexburg.

From the Standard Journal Article:

Two companies have already expressed interest in adding data centers in Rexburg, but current lack of bandwidth makes that a challenge, [Economic Development Director for Rexburg Scott] Johnson told members of the Kiwanis Club earlier this week.

Brigham Young University-Idaho is the main component behind the study, he said during the meeting.

“They are the ones who asked us to do this and take this forward,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the university has minimum Internet connectivity expectations for every student on campus, which falls far short because of the current infrastructure. He said the rapid proliferation of electronic devices make it imperative to plan for better informational connectivity.

Rexburg Chamber of Commerce

The discussion about fiber in the region has been going on for some time. A 2003 Standard Journal article described a meeting hosted by the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce. Many of the same groups along with representatives from Cable One, Qwest (now CenturyLink), and Idaho fiber network provider Fremont Telcom/FreTel Communications (now part of Blackfoot Telecommunications) attended that gathering.

Also in attendance at that 2003 meeting was Richard Holloway, from the Madison School District, who noted that the school district had installed $650,000 worth of buried fiber optic lines and were quite pleased with the results:

Holloway said while the initial installation was expensive, the quality of the connection is much better and very inexpensive to use.

Before, when the district was using a T1 line, the system was often down and student data information required by the state was easily lost.

"This has solved our down time," he said.

As can be expected:

Richard Jayo, Idaho general manager of Qwest Communications, suggested that Rexburg and the area has everything it needs to attract high-tech businesses and that the community already has everything available to it except for DSL.

"Fiber and broadband are not necessarily synonymous," he said, trying to convince the audience that the high speed T1 lines already available are sufficient to the community's needs.

"There's no amount of bandwidth that we can't deliver if someone wants it," Jayo said.

"If a business is interested in your community, we stand ready to make a trip to explain how robust your communications are."

Readers may recall that T1 lines are 1.5 Mbps, a far cry from the 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps upstream that the FCC now defines as a "basic" broadband connection. Taking advantage of modern applications requires even faster connections, especially for businesses. All Qwest (now CenturyLink) representatives parrot the claim that we can deliver anything necessary, but refuse to quote prices. Their prices are far in excess of what is reasonable, which is why communities are investing in their own networks -- to ensure everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable connections.