In the 1990s, the community of Shafter, California, began developing its strategic plan; the move would eventually lead them to build a municipal broadband network. The town of 17,000 still depended primarily on agriculture but manufacturers were relocating to the community, drawn by its proximity to the railroad and its open space. Potential employers increasingly focused on broadband access as a priority and Shafter realized broadband would be critical to continued growth.
Shafter’s Assistant City Manager Scott Hurlbert recently explained to us how the community built its own fiber network to serve commercial clients, local government, and schools. This incremental approach is not unique but Shafter has no municipal electric nor gas utility, which does puts it in the company of Santa Monica, Mount Vernon, and a few other communities that have built networks without having a municipal power company.
Shafter’s City Council examined its strengths and its weaknesses and found a way to build a network with no borrowing or bonding. The community continues to expand its fiber network, attracting businesses and improving quality of life in this central California town.
In the 1990s AT&T was the main business services provider and it would only improve business telecommunications on an order-by-order basis. Companies that wanted to build beyond the developed town had to pay for the installation themselves, often waiting months to get connected. Prices were "obscene" and the delays almost killed several commercial deals. Even today AT&T takes the same approach in Shafter.
When he joined the City in 2005 as the IT Director, Hurlbert and his staff researched wireless technologies but determined that fiber-optic deployment would be the best option. At that time, the bandwidth demand was already intense and a wireless network would need fiber for backhaul. Hurlbert and staff also investigated other communities, including Chelan, Washington, to look for workable models.
In 2006, three master planned residential subdivisions were approved for expansion of the City of Shafter. The city saw this as an opportunity to start a large-scale FTTH network to serve both business and homes. They developed a triple play model, planning to connect to each of the 11,000 future homes. The city would use revenue from the FTTH network to expand out to surrounding areas for more industrial customers and build a new network for government, schools, and public safety. But when faced with a troubled economy in 2008, plans for the subdivisions evaporated and the FTTH plan was also put on hold.
The community decided to adjust course with a focus on economic development, improving municipal connectivity, and improving public safety. “Jobs, education, safety” became the new mantra. “It’s a cycle,” Hurlbert says, “and if you break that chain the whole thing starts to fall apart.” Community leaders wanted to create a broadband network to draw in more local businesses, serve students, and generate public savings.
At the time the City spent $6,000 per month for six T1 connections. In 2006, Shafter asked AT&T for a quote to connect City Hall to a nearby correctional facility. The relatively small fiber upgrade would have cost $140,000 to build and up to $5,000 per month to lease for a 100 Mbps connection. Rather than depend on AT&T, Shafter decided it was time to start investing in community fiber infrastructure. Budgeting would be predictable and the City would control a network that would provide more capacity.
With less than $200,000 from the general fund, Shafter built fiber connections to city government offices, police offices, the county library, volunteer fire department facilities, the veterans’ hall, the county court house, a local youth center, school district facilities, and a fiber-to-fiber connection with the county sheriff's private network. The city also connected the correctional facility that is now no longer in use. From the day they lit the network, they have never experienced a failure. The existing fiber network consists of four miles in the city core and provides 10 gigabit capacity between its municipal facilities.
Prior to the connecting to the network, the school district used a T1 connection for its main campus and wireless connections to a second campus. Hurlbert tells us that the county superintendent provided multimedia courseware and the T1 lines were sufficient, but the wireless connection did not support it. A large segment of the student body could not access the material, putting any Shafter students behind the learning curve.
Hurlbert established E-rate provider status for the city, and now supplies a dark fiber connection for the school at a $1,000 per month. Shafter’s school district qualifies for a 90% E-rate reimbursement, so the school district actually pays $1,200 per year for 1 gigabit connectivity between facilities. Hurlbert says the city recouped the cost of the expansion in three years and increased the network’s footprint for future expansion.
The City later received a grant from Homeland Security to build a communications tower, which connects to the network. Security cameras on the tower have prevented theft and documented criminal activity at a relatively remote industrial campus. The next phase for the network will include increased public safety applications such as traffic light control and more cameras in industrial areas.
Shafter has not abandoned its dream of an extensive FTTH network. Hurlbert tells us they have a "guinea pig" subdivision where the developer installed conduit to each property. As the network continues to grow, he sees the "jobs, security, education" chain expanding along with it. Hurlbert says a patient community willing to stick to its long-term vision is critical for success.