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Rio Blanco County Has Big Plans for Open Access Network

In Rio Blanco County, you’re almost more likely to find a dinosaur fossil than a human being. This rural county in northwestern Colorado has about two people for every square mile, but its sparse population is not stopping it from advancing an ambitious open-access broadband initiative

More than a year into the rollout of the network plan, Rio Blanco County (RBC) has already succeeded in soliciting $2 million in matched funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), contracted a network operator, and secured easements (land-use rights) from the county’s two largest municipalities to begin construction on the FTTx network. The bulk of the funding will come for the County budgeting for the infrastructure.

The network will initially touch every block and ultimately be expanded to deliver a fiber connection to each premise in the two towns. 

Rio Blanco’s network will be a four-tier open access arrangement. The county will own the infrastructure - from the data center to the optical network terminal (ONT) within the home and everything in between. A private company, Colorado.Fiber.Community, will operate the network. And a combination of independent middle-mile Internet service providers and last-mile value-added resalers will offer services directly to residents. 

For Rio Blanco County IT Director, Blake Mobley, this arrangement is what makes Rio Blanco County’s initiative both unique and feasible. Mobley gave a presentation at the MountainConnect conference in Vail, Colorado, where he spoke about the challenges and the early successes of Rio Blanco County community broadband network. Because the network is open-access, he said, the county can focus on what it does best - laying the groundwork and setting larger policy objectives, not taking the mantle of Internet service provider: 

We look at this just like a county building county roads. You build those roads out. You as a county aren’t anticipating a large return on that investment from those roads up front. It’s the utilization of those roads that builds an economy that’s going to be to your benefit.

Mobley, who along with presenting at MountainConnect also spoke with Chris on the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week, emphasized that it was the business community that came to the county in search of better broadband options. In his words:

The drive to do this project originated with the community itself. They came to the commissioners about a year and a half ago...to say... "You’ve got to solve this problem. We have businesses that have come in and looked in communities, large and far-from-large ones, that said we don’t have the bandwidth we need and we’re not going to locate here. We have residents that are having challenges."

Community members demanding better broadband from municipalities is hardly a new phenomenon. Local demand for community broadband networks has forced the hand of municipal and county governments in multiple Colorado locations. In the state of Colorado, underserved communities that wish to build a network must vote to override a barrier (Senate Bill 05-152) that prevents municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Last November, a resounding 82 percent of Rio Blanco County citizens voted to override this barrier. Rio Blanco County joined five municipalities (Boulder, Yuma, Wray, Cherry Hills Village, and Red Cliff) and one other county (Yuma) in overriding SB05-152 and thereby exercising their right to build a community network.  

Along with providing FTTx capacities, Rio Blanco County’s open access network plan includes a goal of expanding of cellular towers and emergency services. The county intends to construct 11 towers initially, which will serve up to 80 percent of the community, and provide FTTB connections of 25 Mbps upstream and 5 Mbps downstream, slightly better than the FCC definition of basic broadband.

RBC believes that by the end of 2015, it will have begun construction on its FTTB network in the county’s primary urban areas, the towns of Meeker and Rangely, as well as its more rural areas. For Mobley, a 5th generation Rio Blanco County resident, it is important that the project is done in a way that is transparent for both community members and private partners. He joked: 

I’m building the solution for my friends and family so I have a vested interest to do a very good job because if I get fired and have to leave that will be very uncomfortable.

Hamilton Partners With Local Provider to Serve Businesses in Ohio

Hamilton, Ohio, has entered into a partnership with local firm, CenterGrid, to use city-owned fiber to boost economic development. The firm will offer Internet access and data transport to local businesses via existing infrastructure as the two enter into a five-year pilot project agreement, reports the Journal-News.

The city's business incubator, the Hamilton Mill, is the initial pilot site where emerging businesses are already receiving high-speed connectivity:

“As the initial pilot site, CenterGrid’s service has resulted in the Mill receiving network connectivity that is better than 83 percent of Internet connections throughout the US — that is huge,” Chris Lawson, executive director of the Hamilton Mill said. “For the types of companies that we are attracting, this level of connectivity is imperative for them to be successful.”

A press release from CenterGrid describes rates as economical, competitive, and determined by individual business requirements. According to the press release, entrepreneurs at The Mill are already taking advantage of the service:

"We've wanted a better high-speed internet option for quite some time. Now having something locally provided by the City of Hamilton and CenterGrid makes the idea that much more appealing. This high-speed circuit will allow us to transform our IT infrastructure and deliver value to our business," said Jon Corrado, IT Director at Tedia.

In 2014, the community of Hamilton connected local schools to city fiber allowing them to obtain Internet access from the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). That opportunity decreased school connectivity costs while increasing bandwidth.

City leaders hired a consultant in 2012 who determined that opening up their existing 60-mile I-Net loop to schools and businesses was feasible and would contribute to economic development. Over the course of three years, the project estimate is $4.3 million for network expansion, equipment, ongoing capital, and operating and maintenance expenses. The community is on schedule and, if all goes according to plan, expects to see positive operating revenue in 2017 and net income in 2018.

“This initiative is a new beginning for Hamilton Fiber. Using the high-speed ‘fiber grid’ to connect its business community with our Hamilton data center, we can now deliver next generation computing solutions at previously unheard of cost,” [Director of Public Utilities Doug Childs] said.

Hamilton, located near Cincinnati in southwest Ohio provides electricity, gas, sewer, and water to residents and businesses. Located on the Ohio River, the community operates an extensive hydroelectric system to provide power to its 63,000 residents.

Danville's Incremental Strategy Pays Off - Community Broadband Bits Episode 166

Danville, Virginia, has long been one of the municipal network approaches that we like to highlight. Built in a region hard hit by the transition away from tobacco and manufacturing economies, the open access fiber network called nDanville has led to many new employers coming to town and has shown the benefits of a low-risk, incremental investment strategy for building a fiber network.

Jason Grey, Interim Utilities Manager, is back on the show to update us on their approach. He introduced the network to us three years ago on episode 22.

Since we last checked in, Danville has continued expanding the fiber network to a greater number of residents and Jason talks with us about the importance and challenges of marketing to residents. We also discuss how they lay conduit as a matter of course, even in areas they do not plan to serve immediately with the fiber network.

Read all of our coverage of Danville here.

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

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 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."

Sun Prairie Passes Resolution to Begin Initial Stage of Fiber Project

On July 21, the City Council of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin passed a resolution to fund construction on a segment of what could become a citywide, high-speed fiber optic project. Construction will take place in the city’s Smith’s Crossing subdivision, parts of Main Street, and the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District 9/St. Mary’s development area. It is slated to begin in early September and last through December 1, weather permitting, and will cost an estimated $640,000.

The mayor of Sun Prairie, Paul Esser, believes that going through with this project is the correct move for the City. He was recently quoted in the Sun Prairie Star

Moving ahead with the pilot project in Smith’s Crossing is the right way to go. I believe that as an early adopter of this technology we will have an economic development advantage which will attract companies that require this broad bandwidth.

The fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) construction at Smith’s Crossing is seen as a testing ground for a larger FTTP network construction that would extend 200 miles of fiber and have the potential to connect all of the city’s homes and businesses. Currently Sun Prairie has about 30 miles of fiber. If Sun Prairie can successfully build out this citywide network - costing an estimated $26.7 million for the whole city - it could rival that of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which began construction on its fiber-to-the-home network in 2003. Reedsburg has seen numerous economic development benefits and has created a considerable amount of community savings from lower prices.

The city of Sun Prairie initially invested in fiber optic technologies in 1999. In that year, the City built a fiber ring for the school system. Rick Wicklund, the manager of Sun Prairie Utilities, estimates the fiber ring will save the school $2 million by 2019. The fiber also runs to about 28 businesses and more than 130 Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs), according to Wicklund. Now, Sun Prairie Utilities is looking towards residential markets. 

Officials are calling the Smith’s Crossing construction a “pilot program.” They chose the location on account of its pre-existing physical infrastructure and population density. According to the Sun Prairie Star:

Wicklund said Smith’s Crossing is a good location because the neighborhood has existing ducts through the subdivision and is a dense area with positive demographics for the service: those who have dropped phone land lines and cable.

An upgrade to fiber could be exactly what Sun Prairie residents need in order to stimulate economic development and attract businesses to the city, which sits just more than 10 miles from the college town of Madison. Sun Prairie residents are currently served by incumbents Charter and Frontier - ISPs that rely on outdated technologies unable to provide the gigabit speeds that fiber can supply. Sun Prairie Utilities initially wondered if these incumbents might be willing to build a fiber optic network themselves, but they were unwilling to offer fiber optic services. City alder John Freund, speaking in 2014, indicated the incumbent’s unwillingness to make the switch to fiber:

It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city. 

Now, it appears these industry competitors are actively opposing the proposed municipal network. In early July, incumbent ISPs pitched city officials about the negatives and past failures of municipal projects. As the Star reported earlier this month:

Industry competitors spent more than 90 minutes telling city officials why it’s a bad idea, highlighting failures in other municipalities, questioning the utilities’ ability to handle operations, and even hinting, if it goes through, they’ll cut jobs in the Sun Prairie area. 

Incumbent pressure is nothing new for municipal networks, but it is more unsettling in the case of Sun Prairie, where City officials have gone out of their way to work with these companies - as we reported back in January of 2014. Incumbents often threaten to invest less if faced with a municipal network, but an increase in competition often spurs more investment, not less, as they suddenly fear losing customers that have a real choice in providers.

Wicklund believes that the pilot project would be cash positive within three years if it can achieve a 30 percent take rate. According to a feasibility study, a city-wide network would be cash flow positive by year four and net income positive by year six, assuming a 35 percent take rate across the 13,500 homes passed.

SandyNet Sharing Awesome Gig Deal With Local Businesses

SandyNet has introduced some incredible fiber connectivity deals for local businesses. Like residents, businesses can now get gigabit service for $60 per month and 100 Mbps for $40 per month. The utility also continues to offer enterprise connections, with rates established on a case-by-case basis.

Speeds are symmetrical which can be a critical factor for businesses that often must upload large amounts of data to work with clients. 

Until SandyNet began to deploy the FTTH network, business customers that needed more bandwidth relied on the town's dedicated Wi-Fi service which offered advertised speeds of up to 30 Mbps download, however, that cost $175 per month.

Smaller businesses could sign up for traditional Wi-Fi - the system residents also used - but speeds maxed out at only 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps download. Prices were $25 per month and $35 per month respectively.

Wi-Fi business customers can now make the switch to fiber for no extra fee. Those that are new customers to SandyNet will need to pay a one-time $350 connection fee.

Hungry for more on the SandyNet story? For more on how they did it, check out our video Gig City Sandy: Home of the $60 Gig. You can also listen our interview with Joe Knapp in Episode #17 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

Holyoke Success Spurs Interest in Mass Muni Networks - Community Broadband Bits Episode 162

A few weeks back, we noted an excellent new report on Holyoke Municipal Light Plant in Massachusetts published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This week, we discuss the report and lessons learned from it with David Talbot, Fellow at the Berkman Center.

David gives us some of the key takeaways from the report and we discuss what other municipal light plants are doing, including how Holyoke Gas & Electric is using the state owned middle mile network to partner with other municipalities like Greenfield and Leverett.

Finally, David offers some insight into how the municipal light plants that have not yet engaged in expanding Internet access think about the challenges of doing so. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) episode 65, where we interviewed Tim Haas of Holyoke Gas & Electric.

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 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 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."

Holyoke Case Study from Berkman Center Explores Massachusetts Muni Fiber

A few weeks ago, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society released a report that documents the achievements of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) Telecom, a municipal electric utility that now provides fiber-optic broadband Internet to local businesses in several western Massachusetts towns. The utility’s move into fiber-optics has led to municipal savings for the City of Holyoke, as well as increased high-speed access in neighboring cities, and driven economic development. We interviewed Holyoke's Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, in a previous episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Because the state of Massachusetts has no barriers that prevent the creation of municipal Internet networks, HG&E has been able to compete on a level playing field with incumbent ISPs Comcast and Charter. HG&E is among 12 MLPs (Municipal Light Plants) out of 41 in the state to offer fiber Internet services. Researchers at the Berkman Center believe that MLPs could play a large role in expanding Internet access and business opportunities throughout the state as electricity revenues experience diminishing returns and data needs grow. For example, HG&E’s fiber connection was a factor in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center’s decision to open a $90 million data center in Holyoke. 

HG&E is a somewhat unique municipal network in that it offers services not only in Holyoke, but also in nearby Chicopee. It also assists Leverett and Greenfield with their own networks. In Chicopee, the utility provided fiber access in a collaboration with 35 local businesses. In Leverett, it is managing the municipal network, with services provided by a local private company. As for Greenfield, HG&E now serves as the ISP for City Hall and the city’s police station, both of which will function as Internet access nodes as the town looks to create a fiber and wireless network that extends into homes and businesses. 

Unlike in North Carolina and Tennessee, where public interest groups had to petition the FCC to strike down a law preventing cities from extending fiber into neighboring municipalities, in Massachusetts cross-municipal collaboration can happen at the drop of a hat. The authors of the report write: 

These deals provide modest revenue streams and also illustrate how a MLP telecom division can extend its offerings far beyond the usual geographic boundaries of electricity service.

Though HG&E currently only offers municipal fiber optic services to business and community anchor institutions, the next step for other MLPs is the provisioning of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services. The report highlights Westfield’s plans to use its public utility to roll out an FTTH offering: 

The offering will include optional phone service, but no TV bundle. WGE [Westfield Gas and Electric Department] had rejected the idea of residential service several times over the past 10 years because it would have meant providing TV content. Now, however, on-demand video services are becoming popular. 

The Berkman Center report, which runs 21 pages, illustrates both the shifting demands for broadband access, as well as a collaborative method for addressing these needs. The hope is that reports of this nature can contribute to an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge with regards to the variety of municipal approaches in play for expanding high-speed, reliable Internet access.

Kentucky City Transfers Ownership of Network, Still Under Local Control

The city of Franklin, KY transferred ownership of its fiber optic network to the Franklin Electric Plant Board (EPB) for $2.5 million. The Franklin City Commission unanimously approved a resolution for the transfer of ownership at the June 8th meeting. The network, although no longer maintained by the city, is still under local control. The EPB is an extension of city government, but has its own board of directors. Pleased with the city’s decision, Mayor Ronnie Clark stated:

"Broadband is now the new utility, and who better to deliver those services than the local infrastructure experts, EPB. They have the manpower and the equipment, as well as the community's confidence in providing reliable utility service and exceptional local customer support."

The city developed the 32-mile fiber optic network to encourage economic development by providing broadband to local businesses. The network attracted to new businesses including a distribution center from Tractor Supply Company. Currently, the network supports Internet connectivity to more than 40 business and industry customers in Franklin. The EPB hopes to continue to expand the services: 

"This network will be an excellent fit for us operationally, and will enable us to expand our role in serving our customers with the most robust broadband services available. We have big plans to add new services and grow our broadband customer base," said General Manager of EPB Bill Borders.

In this $2.5 million deal with EPB, the city will recoup the $2.5 million cost of constructing the network. Originally, the city funded $1.5 million with bonds and received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. The sale of the network to the EPB will pay off a $1.3 million bond issued to create the network and the remainder will go into the general fund. 

Municipal Networks and Economic Development

Economic Development and Community Networks

When a community invests in a municipal broadband network, it often does so because it hopes to reap economic benefits from the network. Much has been written about the positive relationship between municipal Internet networks and economic development, including a White House report published in January 2015. Municipal networks create jobs by serving existing businesses and attracting new businesses to local communities, increase productivity by allowing individuals to telecommute and work from home, support advanced healthcare and security systems, strengthen local housing markets, and represent long term social investments in the form of better-connected schools and libraries. They also create millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested into local communities. 

When municipalities choose to deploy fiber networks, they introduce Internet services into the community that are not only significantly faster than Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and cable, but more reliable. With fiber connections, businesses and individuals are far less likely to experience temporary blackouts that can harm their ability to provide services to customers. And because these networks are locally-owned and operated, business owners do not have to spend hours on the phone with an absentee Internet Service Provider like AT&T in the (albeit unlikely) event of a problem. 

Community Broadband Networks and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have catalogued numerous examples of economic development achievements that have occurred as a result of cities and counties deploying a municipal broadband network. Below, you can find a wide range of articles, studies, blog posts, and other resources that speak to the economic successes enabled by municipal networks, organized by topic:

* Job Creation

* Attraction of New Businesses

* Expansion of Existing Businesses

* Home-based Productivity 

* Healthcare, Education, and Research

* High Tech Industries and Entrepreneurship

* Savings 

* Property Values 

* General Resources

Gigabit Internet for North Central Ohio Schools

Consolidated Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit, member-owned cooperative, will soon offer gigabit broadband in rural North Central Ohio. They intend to first offer the gigabit to local schools and then to businesses.

According to eSchoolNews, Consolidated Electric Cooperative will provide 15 school districts with gigabit connectivity. The school districts will then have greater access to online resources and be better able to comply with mandated online testing in Ohio. In the article, Doug Payauys, vice-president of information systems for Consolidated Electric Cooperative, described the need for improved Internet access in schools:

"Technology is creating a shift in today’s classroom, and it’s transforming the way teachers educate and students learn. As the country becomes a more digital-based society, schools must work to transform lesson plans and accommodate new technologies” 

The gigabit broadband will also improve the Wi-Fi in the school districts, providing more bandwidth for wireless learning devices. Wireless connections almost always depend on wireline backhaul to ensure each access point does not have a bottleneck between the user and the larger Internet. With better Wi-Fi, the schools hope to support an online curriculum for students to learn at their own pace.

Consolidated Electric Cooperative also intends to offer the gigabit connectivity to local businesses. They already offer some broadband connections to businesses through their Enlite Fiber Optic Network. They first began to develop this network in 2010 with some costs covered through the Broadband Initiatives Program created by the stimulus effort. Since then, they have expanded the network which now consists of 200 miles of fiber optic cable from Columbus to Mansfield, spanning five rural counties in North Central Ohio.

They currently do not offer residential fiber, focusing instead on providing a middle mile connectivity to governments, schools and businesses. They are, however, prepared to adapt to support residential services in the future:

Payauys noted that the network has been designed to enable Consolidated to easily deploy residential broadband if the company were to choose to do so at a future time. And already some other network operators – including three wireless Internet service providers – have stepped up to offer residential broadband using the Consolidated network for aggregation and Internet connectivity.

Consolidated Electric Cooperative expects about a four-year payback on the network and appears ready to continue expanding broadband access in rural Ohio.