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Minnesota's Lake County Fiber Network Begins Connecting Customers

The Lake County fiber network is now serving a limited number of customers in northern Minnesota. According to the Lake County News Chronicle, the network's triple-play services are lit and bringing better connectivity to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

About 100 customers in Silver Bay take service via the network; beta testers in Two Harbors are helping Lake Connections, the entity managing the network, straighten out any kinks in Phase One. Phase Two, which is more than 60% complete, will bring service to Duluth Township, Knife River, Silver Creek Townships, and Beaver Bay Township. Phase Two is scheduled for completion this summer; Lake Connections anticipates network completion in the fall of 2015.

The Lake County project has been plagued with problems, including delays cause by incumbents. Mediacom filed complaints with the Inspector General based on unsound allegations. While the cable company was not confident enough to sue, its accusations wasted time and money for Lake County. Frontier asserted ownership of a significant number of Two Harbors utility poles, even though the City has maintained them, and the two are still involved in negotiations over ownership and fiber placement on the poles. The Minnesota Cable Companies Association (MCCA) delayed the project further by submitting a massive data request.

The FTTH project is one of the largest stimulus projects, totaling approximately $70 million in grants, loans, and local matching funds. The project will cover almost 3,000 square miles when complete, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and provide services to over 1,000 businesses.

As we have noted before, the project was sorely needed. On more than one occasion, a single fiber cut to the area created Internet black outs to homes, businesses, hospitals, government, and any other entity depending on connectivity to function.

In Two Harbors, outdoor equipment supplier Granite Gear is on the new network. In the past, the entire company shared one DSL connection, forcing the company art director to work at night when bandwidth was available. Now, everyone works normal hours. From the article:

Dave Johnson, the strategic accounts manager for the 28-year-old company, said fast internet has become essential to Granite Gear in recent years.

“It’s not just nice having faster internet, but it has become an absolute necessity,” he said.

“Business is not just pushing emails back and forth. We maintain a website,” he said. “Doing business has become real bandwidth intensive.” A new technological era has dawned and companies are evolving to keep pace with their competitors.

Granite Gear Logo

Johnson told us via email that uploading files for customers in the past used to take hours but now the task takes a few minutes and does not disrupt service for other employees.

Delays have created extra expenses and Lake County will need more customers like Granite Gear to make the network strong. According to the article, the County has already started making loan payments:

[County Commissioner Rich] Sve said he understands his constituents’ concerns that the network may not be viable.

“I share that concern as a taxpayer. I think it’s legitimate,” he said.

But, he added, private companies have not stepped forward to provide the service, despite encouragement by federal and state government to do so. The county, therefore, opted to undertake the task.

“So far, we’re pleased with what we’re getting in Silver Bay and hopeful that it continues,” [Lake Connections Project Manager Jeff Roiland] said.

Businesses and residents interested in signing up for service from Lake Connections can contact them today to make arrangements:

“The biggest thing to do is contact our staff,” Roiland said. “They can call in (or) walk in and the gals at the office can explain to them what to do.”

UC2B and Partner Bringing Fiber to More Urbana-Champaign Communities in Illinois

The UC2B Network and its partner, iTV-3, will soon bring gigabit capabilities to more people in the Champaign-Urbana community in Illinois. According to the UC2B press release [PDF], iTV-3 will expand existing fiber to areas of the community to serve residents and businesses. iTV-3 will take subscriptions for commercial and residential access online at www.theperfectupgrade.com.

In a statement from the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler commented:

"Congratulations to Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) and iTV-3 on making gigabit services over fiber available throughout the community. This public-private partnership provides a valuable model for communities and companies throughout the country and a demonstration of the creativity that is stimulated when localities are free to work with the private sector to improve broadband offerings.”

UC2B and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to deploy an urban FTTH network in Illinois. The not-for-profit corporation offered economical Internet service to residential subscribers in economically disadvantaged areas, some as low as $19.99 per month. The network also connected a number of community anchor institutions including schools, hospitals, and municipal facilities throughout the Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area.

According to a fact sheet on the project [PDF], the company is a subsidiary of a family-owned business that started in Springfield, Illinois. iTV-3 has been an ISP since the mid 1990s but also owns and operates over 775 Family Video stores in 19 states and Canada. UC2B chose iTV-3 because the company operates in a manner consistent with the Community Broadband Principles, core values guiding UC2B since inception. iTV-3 will also contribute to UC2B's Community Benefit Fund, established to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion. 

iTV-3 will offer wholesale access via the existing structure and, if neighborhoods do a not connect after five years, other companies will have the opportunity to offer services via the infrastructure. iTV-3 will lease the existing infrastructure and equipment from UC2B and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of the network. If the two part ways in the future, UC2B will have the option to purchase the infrastructure deployed by iTV-3.

iTV-3 has offered services in other Illinois communities since 2009. According to the iTV-3 press release [PDF], the ISP will be bringing services into neighborhoods of 150 - 350 homes once 50% of homes sign-up. iTV-3 will begin by offering Internet and voice and plans to add video in the future.

Service rates will be:

  • 50/10 Mbps Internet - $49.95
  • 50/10 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $64.90
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet - $59.95
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $74.90
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet - $79.95
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $94.90

For more on the UC2B project, listen to Chris' interview with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from the network's policy committee and Carol Ammons of the U-C Independent Media Center. He spoke to them in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Shaker Heights Considers Expanding Fiber in Ohio

The Shaker Heights City Council is considering expanding an existing fiber network, reports Cleveland.com. The project would allow OneCommunity, the nonprofit managing a regional fiber network, access to the city's rights-of-way for 15 years.

OneCommunity, created in 2003, received a $44 million broadband stimulus award to extend fiber in northeast Ohio. The organization's network spans approximately 2,000 miles, providing connectivity for over 2,300 public facilities. Cuyahoga County, Medina County, and the town of New Brunswick are just a few communities that worked with OneCommunity to improve local connectivity for anchor institutions. 

According to the article, one commercial district in town, the Chagrin-Lee area, connects to the OneCommunity network. The Shaker LaunchHouse, a business accelerator, is the hub of Ohio's first "fiberhood." The LaunchHouse is also the first entity on the network offering gigabit speeds to the private sector:

"We work with a lot of start-up companies, and some of them are high-tech and having those higher Internet speed capabilities is key, " [director of entrepeneurial programming Katie] Connelly said. "We had more people coming in who are doing things like writing software, so our numbers have definitely increased." 

The City Council is seeking more information before they make a decision on granting access. Shaker Heights, home to 28,000 people, sits adjacent to Cleveland's eastern edge. A large number of buildings in Shaker Heights are listed on the National Register of Historic Places because the town started as a planned community in 1905. Shaker Heights adheres to strict zoning and building codes to preserve its historic feel.

According to the article, new retail, residential, and office space is coming to the community as part of a redevelopment project; the proposed expansion would service that area of town.

"Our goal as a city is to bring new development into Shaker Heights," city Economic Development Director Tania Menesse said. "For some companies, the availability of high speed Internet access could be a reason they decide to move their company across the country from an area where it's not available."

Understanding the Georgia Communications Cooperative - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #92

While at the SEATOA Conference in Raleigh last week, I met Mike Foor, the President and CEO of the Georgia Communications Cooperative (GCC). Given the important role GCC is playing in expanding great Internet access in rural Georgia, we wanted to interview him for Community Broadband Bits.

Back in episode 46, we spoke with Paul Belk about the North Georgia Network (NGN). This week we learn more about how cooperatives have worked together to form the GCC and help the NGN to expand.

Mike and I also discuss what it will take to connect rural homes, businesses, and anchor institutions with fiber optics - the real challenges and the imagined ones.

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."

To Overbuild or Underbuild? A Rural Policy Conundrum - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #91

Lisa Gonzalez and I, Christopher Mitchell, are back in studio for a short conversation about the implications of a municipal network or a coop receiving subsidies from government to engage in overbuilding, where it builds a fiber network in an area already served by slow DSL and cable networks.

This has become an important issue as Minnesota considers a fund that would encourage networks in areas currently unserved and possibly underserved.

We discuss the economics, fairness, and practial realities of both allowing "overbuilding" and disallowing it as Minnesota features two similar networks that have come to different conclusions, to the advantage and disadvantage of different local stakeholders.

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 13 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.

GAO Report: Government Telecom Investments Help Local Businesses

The Government Accountability Office released a report today examining economic development and government-spurred broadband deployment. The report, titled Telecommunications: Federal Broadband Deployment Programs and Small Business looks at the effects of stimulus projects on opportunities for small business. 

According to the press release:

“GAO’s investigation confirms the success of the Recovery Act’s broadband programs," said Rep. Waxman.  “In rural and urban areas across the country, small businesses are benefitting from higher speeds and lower prices thanks to federal investment in this essential infrastructure.  Expanding broadband access and quality is critical for American competiveness in the 21st century global economy. These were public dollars well spent.”

The report reviews communities around the country where either federal dollars have been invested in networks or local governments have made such investments. The results were consistent with our findings over the years - municipal networks create a business-friendly environment and contribute to economic development. 

According to the report summary:

According to small businesses GAO met with, the speed and reliability of their broadband service improved after they began using federally funded or municipal networks.

Regarding competition, the GAO find that municipal networks spur competitor investments:

For example, following the construction of a fiber-to-the-home municipal network in Monticello, Minnesota, the two other broadband providers in the area made investments in their infrastructure to improve their broadband speeds. One of these providers stated that all of its networks undergo periodic upgrades to improve service, but upgrade schedules can change in order to stay competitive when there is a new service provider in a particular market.

MassBroadband 123 Complete in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) just announced that the 1,200-mile fiber network MassBroadband 123 is now complete.

According to the official announcement, the middle-mile network will eventually serve over 1,200 community anchor institutions. The open access network, constructed with $45.4 million in stimulus funding and an additional $40 million in state bond proceeds, lit up in March 2013. Schools, hospitals, and municipal government are some of the entities already connected.

Communities with a history of little or no middle-mile options will now have some level of connectivity via MassBroadband 123. The Commonwealth hopes to attract last-mile providers to connect homes and businesses, something we have yet to see succeed. We are afraid a more likely scenario will be a few providers seeking to connect the highest revenue customers with no intention to connect everyone, an outcome that would perversely make it more expensive to build financially sustainable networks in these areas.

A few places, like Leverett and Princeton, plan to invest in their own publicly owned infrastructure and will have the option to connect to the outside world through MassBroadband 123. This is an excellent approach that we applaud because it leads us to universal access.

According to a Bershire Eagle article, the state legislature plans to bring more funding to the initiative for last-mile connections:

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

In our experience, middle mile networks change the economics of the operating costs for fiber networks, not the capital costs. The high upfront capital costs are what deter investment and robust middle mile networks do little to change that reality, which is why communities are smart to step up and make the necessary investments.

New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access

A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town.

We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house.

Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called Fast Roads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it.

Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins.

Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.

People often hear, for example, that 95 percent of the state has access to broadband, she said. But that’s only by including all New Hampshire Internet speeds, some of which fall below the speed considered fast enough to be broadband, which is 4 megabits per second (Mbps). Most of the state, more than half, doesn’t have access to speeds that meet the 4 Mbps threshold, she [Carole Monroe, Executive Director of Fast Roads] said.

...

So far, there are four providers on the network, which passes through 19 towns, including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Keene, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey. Now that construction is complete, FastRoads is working to add more providers to the list, as well as looking for ways to expand its network to more residential areas.

FastRoads also included two areas of “last mile” construction, enabling 1,300 residents and businesses in specific areas of Rindge and Enfield to connect directly to the FastRoads fiber, though a service provider has to bring the connection from the cable box on the street into the home.
So far, about 180 residents or businesses are using the network, Monroe said.

For Rindge resident Tim Wessels, the FastRoads network has made a “world of difference.”
Before it, he paid $130 a month for a satellite and two DSL circuits. Combining all three, he had a download speed of just over 3 megabits per second.

Now, Wessels pays $70 to one Internet service provider for 20 Mbps of download and upload speed.

Fast Roads was assisted with an award from the federal broadband stimulus programs.

OpenCape: Local Ideas to Maximize Fiber Infrastructure

The OpenCape Network launched about eight months ago to bring better middle mile connectivity to Cape Cod. Reporter Sean Gonsalves explored other possibilities for the 350-mile infrastructure in a recent Cape Cod Online article.

Gonsalves spoke with OpenCape CEO Dan Vorthems. The network was funded with $32 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants and approximately $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet. It brings connectivity to 91 community anchor institutions from Provincetown as far west as Providence and Brockton. The idea for the network began with Cape Cod Community College and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Today, OpenCape is a non-profit with Board members from healthcare, higher education, public education, government, and the private sector.

Gonsalves and Vorthems touched on the high hopes for economic development that accompanied the network deployment. When the project began, the dream was to turn Cape Cod into a "Silicon Sandbar." The network is still in its infancy, but new jobs in the area are retail, service, and tourist related rather than high-tech. Residents of Cape Cod were hoping the network would bring better paying positions to meet the high cost of living in the area.

Gonsalves takes it one step further and proposes using the network for last mile connections:

Getting the Cape's big data users online opens up all sorts of possibilities. But [what] I wanted to know is when the Cape would get to the point where residential users could access this Internet autobahn capable of reaching speeds of a gigabit per second.

Once that happens, the Cape suddenly becomes a really attractive place for tech-savvy entrepreneurs, small business start-ups, and potential work-from-home employees who now spend hours commuting off-Cape. In the super high-speed tech world, they call that "the last mile."

Governor Patrick expressed his intention to bring better connectivity to underserved communities in his State of the Commonwealth address in January. There are a good number of underserved communities in Massachusetts, especially on the western side of the state, so Vorthems does not anticipate large amounts of state funding to find its way to Cape Cod.

There is a group working to optimize the asset that is already in place. From the article:

In the last few years, an ad hod group called Smarter Cape Partnership — comprising Open Cape, the Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Cod Technology Council and the Cape Cod Young Professionals — have been working to establish plans to develop shared work spaces for technology oriented start-ups.

"We've been approached by a number of organizations who are interested in doing fiber-to-the-home projects here," he said. "It's a very exciting time."