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Harford County Network Goes Live in Maryland

Harford County, a mixed suburban and rural area in northeast Maryland, flipped the switch in late May on its Harford Metro Area Network (HMAN). The network includes 160 miles of fiber bringing high speed broadband to 150 sites, including all area schools, fire stations, libraries, and county and municipal buildings.

The project required $13.8 million in general obligation bonds from the county's capital improvement budget to construct four main fiber optic loops, with lateral connections leading to local anchor institutions. Not all planned facilities are connected yet, but construction will continue throughout the summer, as will the development of a business plan to determine how best to offer connections to local businesses and residences. Connections in the more rural northern area of the county will be wireless, due to the higher cost of building out to each home in lower density areas.

County Director of Information and Communication Technology Ted Pibil estimated that the county will save approximately $1 million per year by owning its own network, allowing it to cut ties with Verizon and Comcast. All of Harford County’s 54 public schools will see benefits as well, with increases in bandwidth of 50-100 times.

Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane emphasized the public safety benefits of having a reliable communications network built with multiple contingencies in mind:

"This is going to provide the sheriff’s office with redundancy. That’s something we do not have at this time. It is something we have always considered a very precarious situation to be in… this will move us forward.”

While HMAN is funded entirely by county bonding, it builds on the backbone infrastructure of the OneMaryland Network, a stimulus-funded project that connects every county in the state. The press conference announcing the start of network operations can be seen here.

Wisconsin Local Governments Collaborate for Schools, City, and County

Sheboygan County, the City of Sheboygan, and the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD) plan to collaborate to deploy a fiber network. According to an article in the Sheboygan Press, all three entities seek cost savings and higher capacity connections.

Approximately, 49,000 people live in the City of Sheboygan; there are 10,000 students attending SASD. Over 115,000 people live in the County located on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The County, the City, and SASD will split the cost of constructing the ring, approximately $1.4 million. Each entity will then pay for laterals to connect its facilities to the ring. The total to construct the ring and connect each entities' facilities will be approximately $3.58 million. 

To build its laterals, SASD will pay $865,000. The District will save approximately $220,000 per year on connectivity fees, paying back the total investment ($1.4 million + $865,000) in about 10 years even without putting any value on the considerable benefit of much high capacity connections. When factoring in the reality that their connectivity fees would undoubtedly increase signficantly under the status quo arrangement and the much higher capacity connections, the payback period will be even shorter than 10 years.

The district is already providing a device for each student and its current connection is struggling to meet the demand. The state has a program, TEACH Wisconsin, which subsidizes the high cost of leasing connections from existing providers but given the high rates often charged by a company like AT&T, it can only go so far.

Wayne Eschen, information services coordinator, said the district pays about $220,000 per year for its online capacity...

“(TEACH Wisconsin) is limited,” Eschen said. “If you go beyond that, you pay full retail for it. We’ve exceeded the base that’s available to us and we’re now paying retail as well. As the need continues to increase, the retail cost goes up substantially.”

Meanwhile, the County now pays approximately $29,000 per year for just 25 Mbps Internet access. They estimate they will pay $9,000 per year for gigabit connectivity via the new infrastructure. We do not know how much the County currently pays for connectivity beyond Internet access but it will pay approximately $455,000 in one time fees to connect laterals to its 13 - 14 facilities.

The City has plans for its faster connections:

“What we want to do is look at different ways we can get them connected with high speed and yet have it cost-manageable,” [IT Director David] Augustin said. “If we go with those avenues (the current system), we’ll still never get the speed capacity that we would with fiber and yet we’d still have to pay the monthly charge.”

One thing the city is especially interested in is conducting some fire department training by video conference, which would require much faster speeds than they now have.

The City expects to pay approximately $664,000 to establish connections to a future network.

Apparently, a road project has inspired the partners to move forward this summer. They have determined that burying conduit as part of that project will reduce the costs by $400,000. They hope to have the network completed and lit by 2016.

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

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 via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Rural Colorado's Cortez Fiber Network Serves Region - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #98

Located in rural southwest Colorado, Cortez is just 20 miles from the famous four corners of the US southwest. When incumbents were either unwilling or unable to provide modern services in the region, Cortez stepped up with a plan. This week, Cortez General Services Director Rick Smith joins us to share how they incrementally built an open access fiber network.

Cortez is one of the growing number of local governments with no electric utility that has built its own fiber network - and they didn't just stop with one. They have built both a local loop for a business district and a larger regional loop to connect anchor institutions.

The network was financed in large part with grants from the state that were matched locally. Cortez has plans to continue growing both networks to ensure area businesses and residents have access to the services they need in the modern economy.

We covered Cortez when it first launched back in 2011 - see all our coverage here. Read more about the Cortez Community Network here.

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 via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Connecting Arlington, From Anchors to Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #97

Located just outside Washington DC, Arlington is the dense, high tech county that houses the Pentagon. This week's Community Broadband Bits podcast features Arlington County CIO Jack Belcher. Having already built a top-notch fiber network to connect community anchor institutions, the County is now preparing to improve connectivity for local businesses.

We discuss a range of topics from how local governments can take advantage of all kinds of capital projects to expand conduit and fiber assets to how Arlington County responded to 9/11 as it happened.

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 via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

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.