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Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.

Wilson Business Thrives With Muni Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 171

When Wilson decided to build its municipal fiber network in North Carolina, it found a strong opponent in Tina Mooring, store manager of Computer Central. One of the local business' sources of revenue was connecting people to the Internet and they were fearful that they would lose customers to what became Greenlight, the municipal fiber network that delivered the first 100 Mbps citywide service in the state and later the first citywide gig as well.

As we noted in a post in August, Computer Central became a strong supporter of Greenlight and now believes that Computer Central would be best served by allowing Wilson's municipal fiber to expand to nearby communities.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits, Tina Mooring gives us the background and reasoning for this interesting change of heart. This is a short interview, but we hope to see more of these collaborations and partnerships in other communities, where local businesses can use municipal fiber networks to sell business-to-business services.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 10 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Owensboro, Kentucky, Developing Muni FTTH Pilot

Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU) is now expanding its Fibernet services with a pilot FTTH program to connect residents this fall. There are approximately 500 homes in the selected area where OMU will test out the new venture. People living in the project area can sign-up online.

Businesses in Owensboro have had access to OMUFibernet for data transport since 1999 and in 2014 the utility added VoIP to its commercial product line. The pilot will offer gigabit Internet access to residents, but OMUFibernet has only advertised speeds up to 100 Mbps to business customers thus far, according to the OMU website. Businesses are also able to lease dark fiber, which allows them to have more flexibility with data transport speeds.

The city, home to approximately 58,000 people, is the county seat of Daviess County and sits on the south side of the Ohio River. The entire metropolitan population is over 116,000 people. OMU has offered electric and water service since 1900 and describes itself as the largest municipal electric and water system in the state.

OMU plans to offer three tiers for symmetrical Internet access in the city's Town & Country neighborhood. Gigabit service will be priced at $99.99 per month, 100 Mbps at $69.99 per month, and 50 Mbps at $49.99 per month. All subscriptions will require a $49.99 installation fee. 

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Paul Bunyan Communications Wins Award for GigaZone

Sometimes we just want to celebrate a small victory for local communities. Back in June, Paul Bunyan Communications won the 2015 Leading Lights National Award for Most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service.

This small cooperative from rural northern Minnesota beat both innovative local firms like C Spire and national companies like Google. Whereas Comcast is rolling out Gigabit Pro in Silicon Valley, Paul Bunyan Communications is serving sparsely populated, often-ignored, rural areas. Gary Johnson, the Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager was honored to accept the award and explained their approach to gigabit access:

“It is one of the first gigabit network initiatives that will encompassas a large rural area and I think that is significant. Many of the gigabit network projects taking place are in small portions of densely populated metropolitan areas. Too often, the more challenging rural America gets overlooked.”

Paul Bunyan Communications has created a GigaZone passing 7,800 locations, and will soon include 20,000 locations by the end of this year. Those in the GigaZone will have the opportunity to buy a Gigabit connection for only $100 a month. The goal for the small telecom cooperative is to expand the GigaZone to encompass the entire 5,000 square mile service area. Now, that deserves an award.

Westminster Homes Now Receiving Gig Internet Access From Ting

After several years of planning, deployment, and the formation of a partnership with Ting, Westminster's fiber network is now serving its citizens. In August, local CPA Tim Redmond and his wife Allison were the first to get gigabit Internet access, according to a Ting press release.

Apparently, Redmond has been waiting for some time to be able to access such speeds online:

Redmond has followed along with Westminster’s efforts to get the gig for city residents. He first learned of gigabit fiber Internet coming to town in a pretty low-tech way. “We got our water bill and there was an enclosure. It described that fiber optic Internet was coming to Westminster” and introduced Ting Internet as the service provider for Westminster.

It was welcome news; Redmond has been following fiber since his college days when Verizon started to push FiOS in Baltimore. When it became clear that big providers aren’t willing to go anywhere but a major metro, he became despondent. OK, despondent might be a slight overstatement. “I was bummed,” is what he actually said.

Redmond first used his new gig Internet access to fire up his computer and telecommute to his office. Like many residents in Westminster, he will use the network to do more of the same - something he could only wish for prior to the city's initiative to bring publicly owned infrastructure to town.

Listen to Chris interview Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the initiative, in episode #100, and Tucows CEO Elliot Noss, parent company of Ting, in episode #134 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Spanish Fork Upgrading to Fiber in Utah

Spanish Fork Community Network (SFCN) recently announced it is upgrading its cable network to a fiber optic network. The network has already started improving services by increasing speeds for the highest tiers at no extra cost reports the Herald Extra.

Residents and businesses in the town of approximately 37,000 have relied on the municipal cable network since 2001. Over the past 14 years, the network has come to provide triple-play to 80 percent of Spanish Fork homes.

Officials kicked off construction on September 3rd:

“We’re excited this is the next step for the SFCN network," [SFCN Director John] Bowcut said. "We’ve always planned on doing fiber to the home, and now we’re in the fiscal position where we can go ahead and install that for our customers."

Customers who choose to remain with the lowest tier - 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps - will remain on the coax infrastructure, says Bowcut, but will be switched to fiber if they choose to upgrade to a higher tier.

The city made its last bond payment for the existing system this year and will use newly available funds from retiring the debt to fund the upgrade. Assistant City Manager Seth Perrins describes the early deployment as "soft" so officials can obtain a better understanding of cost demands, construction management, and how long the project will take. They estimate the project will be complete by 2020.

According to Bowcut, Premium service that is now 120 Mbps / 15 Mbps will transition into symmetrical gigabit service for around $68 per month. PLUS service, currently 60 Mbps / 10 Mbps, will be upgraded to 100 Mbps symmetrical for approximately $45 per month. The Starter tier at 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps will remain $35 per month. All three tiers offer discounts when purchased with TV service.

Read more about Spanish Fork, one of the early municipal networks, and listen to Chris interview John Bowcut during Episode #60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We have an updated interview with John ready for an upcoming podcast.

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.

P3 between Westminster and Ting is “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year”

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recently named the public private partnership (P3) between the City of Westminster, MD and Ting Inc. as 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year.”  NATOA will officially honor the partnership at their Community Broadband Awards ceremony in San Diego this week.  

In a press release NATOA praised the P3 “...for showcasing an entirely new approach in public private partnerships to reach the common goal of bringing next generation fiber broadband to communities while demonstrating the possibility of creative solutions.”  In Ting’s own press release announcing the award, they described their unique arrangement as private partners in Westminster’s initiative aimed at providing their rural community of more than 18,000 people with blazing fast fiber internet service:

“We have agreed to an open access model. For a period of time at launch, Ting will be both the exclusive network operator and the exclusive service provider. After that, while we will maintain the exclusive role of network operator, we will open up the network to competitive service providers. That gives Westminster the dual benefits of stability and competition. They know that the network will be managed competently by one closely managed relationship. They also know that their businesses and residents will benefit from having many providers competing to offer them the best service at the best price.”

As we wrote in our recent extensive piece about P3s, a company like Ting is seen as a useful partner with expertise that cities may not want to cultivate directly as broadband service providers. Cities like Westminster view such partnerships as offering the benefits of shared risk. Although the data and expert opinions are varied as to whether such partnerships actually offer a reduced risk for municipal networks, Ting’s parent company Tucows has proven itself a responsible and progressive telecommunications company. 

In a January 2015 podcast, we spoke to CEO of Tucows Elliot Noss about Ting’s enthusiasm to work with Westminster.  And in Episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast last May, Chris also talked to the City Council President of Westminster Dr. Robert Wack about the Ting/Westminster partnership.

RS Fiber Cooperative Breaks Ground

Six years after an initial feasibility study was conducted to assess bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in southeastern Minnesota, members of the RS Fiber Cooperative board were finally able to dust off their shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9. Although those shovels may have ended up being more symbolic than they were practical, the ceremony marked an important and long-awaited step in the fight to extend broadband to 10 cities and 17 rural townships across the largely agricultural region.

The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of stage one of a two-stage project that will take five to six years to complete. By the end of 2015, the RS (Renville-Sibley) Fiber Cooperative plans to connect 1,600 homes and businesses with fiber, with 90 percent of its service area covered by high-speed wireless. It hopes to connect another 2,600 homes and businesses by the end of 2016, with the eventual goal of reaching 6,200 potential customers. At the event, Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, highlighted the importance of broadband Internet to rural development:

This technology is to this generation what rural electric and rural telephone was to generations years ago.

The RS Fiber Cooperative is member-owned and member-driven, led by a Joint Powers Board that formed in 2009. In order to provide FTTH to the rural locations across the two counties, the cooperative partnered with a network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that already serves 17 communities in southeast Minnesota. RS Fiber will offer residential Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit for $129.95. It will also connect schools, bolster home and farm security systems, and even facilitate high school sports broadcasts and telemedicine initiatives.

The local governments each sold a General Obligation Tax Abatement Bond that in aggregate totalled $15 million that was loaned to the cooperative, which helped offset the cost of the initial phase of construction. It was a seed that allowed the coop to gather the rest of the necessary funding. The project’s overall funding includes both bonds and commercial loans from community banks.

Community Broadband Networks has followed the RS Fiber project closely as it jumped through several hurdles to create a financially sustainable plan to provide both urban and rural residents FTTH and fiber-to-the-farm services, respectively. ILSR highlighted the cooperative in its 2014 report - All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Chris also interviewed Co-op Vice Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson last May in a Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Board members, according to a recent Gov Tech article, are hopeful that an osteopathic medical school that is coming to Gaylord will use the cooperative’s service.

Bringing broadband to rural communities like the ones in Renville and Sibley counties is critical to the future of the region. Without proper Internet access companies will not think of relocating to the area and when young generations leave, they will leave for good. As Vice Chair Gerholz told Chris:

One of the things that I'm looking at, too, for this whole project is that hopefully it will expand companies, and make invitations to companies, to come to this area. Which will then give more jobs for our kids, and keep our kids at home. Because we lose our kids. They go to college, and they're gone.

Enhanced broadband capacities will give those kids reason to stay, and make the region - which has experienced a steady population decline since the 1970s - economically competitive once again.