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Expansion Ahead For ECFiber

The East Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (ECFiber), a 235-mile Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network that currently connects over 1,200 customers across 24 small towns in east central Vermont, is doing well. It’s doing so well, in fact, that a capital investment group will commit $9 million in long-term financing to the network, a loan that will allow ECFiber to expand and spend down some of its existing debt. 

ECFiber announced last month, that it will use about half of the funds to activate 110 miles of existing fiber this year and add 250 more miles of fiber in 2017 bringing the network to approximately 600 miles. Network officials will use the remaining funds to pay down $7 million in debt; the move will allow ECFiber to save money through reduced interest rates and spread out loan payments over a longer period of time.

Stability Begets New Financing, New Possibilities

The news of this new injection of debt financing comes several years after the original plan to build a larger 1,900-mile, $90 million FTTH network ultimately didn’t materialize in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. When ECFiber failed to secure debt financing for that larger plan, the network scaled back its ambitions, turning to direct investments and raising $7 million from 479 local investors to construct the current network.

This self-financing strategy (for more, listen to our Chris interview Carole Monroe, former General Manager in Community Broadband Bits podcast #177) made ECFiber a reality. This new financing will allow the network to expand at a faster pace and allows ECFiber to significantly stretch its footprint. In the past, the crowd funding approach allowed for targeted, smaller expansions.

The network became eligible for the new debt financing after ECFiber officials took proactive steps in recent years to demonstrate the network’s commercial stability. First, they released audited financial statements for the past three years and showed positive cash flow since the end of 2014. In addition, ECFiber officials took advantage of a new Vermont law that allowed them to change the network’s official governance structure. The shift away from a somewhat unusual inter-local agreement into a “communications union district,” is more familiar and appealing to investors.

“[The restructuring] was an important thing,” said ECFiber Treasurer John Roy. “It would have been much more difficult to borrow by going to investors and financiers (as an inter-local agreement entity) and they would say, ‘Huh, what?’ But if you say you’re a ‘union district,’ that is a recognized ‘body corporate and politic’ and they understand that.”

In order to determine where to expand, network officials are asking Vermonters in the region to pre-subscribe. Communities with the highest number of sign-ups will move to the front of the expansion list.

Grass Will Be Greener With FairlawnGig In Ohio

Fairlawn, Ohio, a quaint little city in Northern Ohio, it is about to get a big Gig – lightning fast Internet speeds of up to one Gigabit (1000 Megabits) per second (Gbps) – for $75 a month. The city has considered the prospect of such a network since last year, and now the community is moving forward.

On April 4th, Fairlawn City Council unanimously approved several ordinances to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network (FTTH) called “FairlawnGig.” For financing, the network will use revenue bonds in an agreement with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

A New FTTH Muni

In November 2015, Fairlawn hired a consultant and envisioned a public-private partnership for the FTTH plan of FairlawnGig. Now, however, these ordinances ensure that the $10 million network that will begin construction in May 2016 will in fact be a municipal network. The ordinances enable the city to enter into a contract with a firm to design and construct the network in the way that best meets the community’s needs.

Currently, the prices are established as:

  • Residential 1 Gbps – $75
  • Residential 100 Mbps - $55
  • Residential 30 Mbps - $30

All speeds will be symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. The network will also offer phone service for an extra $25 a month. Businesses have similar speeds for prices between $90 and $500.

FairlawnGig will serve not only the 7,500 residents of Fairlawn, but it will also provide connectivity to the Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Joint Economic Development District. Ohio communities use these sort of districts to share infrastructure improvement projects.

From Vision to Reality

After thanking the City Council for passing the ordinances that have enabled the FTTH project, Fairlawn Mayor William J. Roth, Jr. further reiterated the purpose of the network:

“Our vision to make world-class, high-speed Internet services available to the residents and businesses of Fairlawn is now a reality. FairlawnGig will deliver a faster, better, and different Internet service from a trusted local provider, and will significantly aid in our efforts to promote economic development and commercial and residential growth in the City of Fairlawn.”

To learn more about the network and keep up to date on the project, check out FairLawnGig.net, the new network’s website.

WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build a Fiber Optic Network

Publication Date: 
April 20, 2016
Author(s): 
David Talbot
Author(s): 
Waide Warner
Author(s): 
Susan Crawford

In 2010, communities in rural western Massachusetts began a group that would evolve into the WiredWest Cooperative. Over the past six years, the group, formed to bring better last-mile connectivity to the unserved and underserved areas of the state, has faced a number of challenges. Most recently, disagreements with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state agency tasked with distributing funds for last-mile connectivity, have threatened WiredWest's regional cooperative model.

In a new report released by the Berkman Center, authors David Talbot, Waide Warner, and Susan Crawford share the story of these communities' attempt to band together to establish a fiber-optic network.

In WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build A Fiber Optic Network, we learn not only how this region came together, but how they developed their business plan and procured funding, how they anticipate the network to affect affordability, and the ways they have adjusted the plan as circumstances required. The authors also take the time to share some history of cooperatives, and address how the cooperative model - used in the past for electricity and telephone - can benefit the communities in rural western Massachusetts.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative

Publication Date: 
April 18, 2016
Author(s): 
Scott Carlson
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves. 

Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future. 

In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.  

Alaska Co-Op Upgrading to Fiber

It isn't very often we have the chance to share stories from the "Last Frontier," but a cooperative in the Valdez area is making news with a planned upgrade to fiber this summer.

DSL to Fiber

According to the Valdez Star, Copper Valley Telecom (CVT) subscribers will be enjoying a switch from old copper DSL Internet access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) when CVT upgrades its system. The new technology will also improve telephone service.

"Once complete, all voice and data will be delivered to the home over fiber optic line and the new electronic interface," CVT said. "Modems will also be replaced."

"There is no cost to the customer for the fiber installation," [CEO Dave] Dengel stated. "Customers will not be asked to pay for the new fiber or the electronics required for voice and Internet access."

Increasing Role of Co-Ops

CVT has served co-op members for more than 50 years with telephone service in the Valdez area and also serves the Copper River Valley and Cordova. Co-ops are bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas across the U.S. and we expect to see more upgrades as existing co-ops switch to fiber. Co-ops know that their future depends on the future of their members because they are members, too.

As CVT Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dengel, put it, "By upgrading our network from copper to fiber, Copper Valley Telecom is preparing the community for the future."

Sun Prairie Utilities' Pilot Project Shows Way to Better Connectivity

Welcome back to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. This town has brought to light the shocking stories of slack service from incumbent providers, the complicated decisions of community representatives, and the hopeful beginning of a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network

The City Council has just approved $16,000 to hire an engineering consultant for the estimated $27-35 million citywide plan. 

In the Pilot Project, So Much Demand!

In July 2015, City Council approved the $624,000 plan for the pilot project, but several factors brought the actual cost up to about $653,000. The pilot project area included the neighborhood Smith's Crossing, the Main Street Corridor, and the TIF District 9 area. 

Sun Prairie Utilities first slated the project for completion in early December, but that underwent several delays. For instance, an over-booked contractor started on the project a month later than expected. Meanwhile, rocky soil conditions and high-demand slowed the pace of construction while raising costs. The Sun Prairie Utilities Manager Rick Wicklund will present the final costs for the pilot project this month. 

The original budget had assumed a 30 percent take-rate that would see a positive cash flow in three years. In actuality, 54 percent of households in the pilot project area are requesting the services.

Forty-three percent have requested the 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.98 each month while 11 percent want the higher-speed service of 250 Mbps for $69.98 each month. The capital expenditure of these unexpected last mile connections brought the cost up, but the extra revenue from these connections will certainly help offset those costs. 

Pilot Project Teaches Lessons

In building the pilot project, the city council sought to learn if a municipal citywide FTTH network would be possible. With the overwhelming demand for Internet service in the pilot project area, a citywide network may be in the cards for this community of 29,000. 

The recently hired consultant will help determine the feasibility, while the city utility department will apply lessons from the pilot project. The city utility will continue to capitalize on their successes of the pilot project. Their outreach strategy worked very well, ensuring the high take rate, as Wicklund explained

“We did a really good job of marketing and contacting everyone, having neighborhood meeting and getting everyone excited about it, that has a lot to do with the high take rate.”

Local Media Covers The MN "Donut Hole" Phenomenon: Video, Editorial

As Minnesota's Legislature decides on funding for the state's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, local media is calling on state leaders to prioritize local connectivity in the Capitol Chambers. This year, Governor Dayton's office is recommending allocating $100 million to the program.

Blended Is Better

In the past, the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program has granted funding to areas of only the greatest need, which has resulted in Internet infrastructure deployment in very rural areas. That's great for municipalities, businesses, and residents in those areas who certainly need and deserve better connectivity. Towns where there is some coverage, such as old DSL networks, have typically not qualified. As a result, rural areas of the state are developing "donut holes" of inadequate connectivity. In the long term, this could spell disaster for these towns because businesses have no reason to locate in places where they can't get the Internet access they need for operations. A blended approach will allow investment in both unserved areas and areas where some networks already exist so centers of economic activity can still compete with their neighbors.

Chris provides more information on the blended approach, and on one possible solution for rural communities, in this nicely produced video created by Capitol Almanac:

Minnesota Broadband, 2016

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are saying broadband expansion, especially to greater Minnesota, is a priority this session, but there are competing perspectives on how to use any funding the legislature sets aside. In this segment from "Almanac at the Capitol," we hear two takes on how best to get all Minnesota online.

Posted by Almanac on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Star Tribune Agrees

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Editorial Board recently published their thoughts in Broadband grants deserve priority in Minnesota. Editors at the Strib recognized the necessity of high-quality Internet access for rural Minnesota, suggesting state funding for rural Internet networks be separated into stand-alone legislation rather than lumped into a large omnibus bill. A separate bill would allow constituents to monitor how their elected officials vote on the issue. This is important to Minnesotans and their future.

The Strib Editorial Board also noted that the debate on how the funds are distributed is a critical policy question:

Should state funds be directed at providing connections where they are lacking or boosting service in places where speeds meet the 2010 state standards but are insufficient for today’s commercial, medical and educational needs?

We hope the answer is “both.” Both situations represent a failure of the private marketplace, which justifies state action.(emphasis ours)

Investing in unserved areas and also in areas where there is service but that service is inadequate to meet the needs of local government, businesses, and residents is the blended approach Minnesotans need.

Sweet Sixteen: Waverly Utilities Hooks Up First Fiber Customers

This week in Waverly, Iowa, the local electric utility, Waverly Utilities, hooked up the first customers for its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. It’s been a long time coming for the town of 10,000 people. 

16 Years Ago: A Vision

The community first had the idea back in 2000 when they voted to form a municipal telecommunications utility after incumbent providers proved a letdown.  Reacting to the vote, those incumbent providers improved their networks a bit, so Waverly Utilities decided to hold off on building a fiber network. 

In 2013, residents and businesses found that the incumbent providers were again not providing necessary connectivity. Taking matters into their own hands, they pushed to create a new, publicly owned network. By 2015, the community had secured revenue bonds for the $12 million project.

Today: A Reality

Waverly Utilities already has 1,100 customers signed up to receive the service, and more homes and businesses will be connected over the next three months. By July 1st, Waverly Utilities’ network will be fully operational, delivering the next-generation connectivity that residents have long been waiting for.

For more about Waverly's project, take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Mike Litterer, who was serving as Interim General Manager of Waverly Light and Power in 2013. He talked with Chris during Episode #53 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

More Colorado Communities Shut Out State Barriers At The Voting Booth

Once again, local communities in Colorado chose to shout out to leaders at the Capitol and tell them, "We reclaim local telecommunications authority!"

Nine more towns in the Centennial State voted on Tuesday to opt out of 2005's SB 152. Here are the unofficial results from local communities that can't be any more direct at telling state leaders to let them chart their own connectivity destiny:

Akron, population 1,700 and located in the center of the state, passed its ballot measure with 92 percent of votes cast supporting the opt-out.

Buena Vista, also near Colorado's heartland, chose to approve to reclaim local authority when 77 percent of those casting votes chose to opt out. There are approximately 2,600 people in the town located at the foot of the Collegiate Peaks in the Rockies. Here is Buena Vista's sample ballot.

The town of Fruita, home to approximately 12,600 people, approved the measure to reclaim local authority with 86 percent of votes cast. Now, when they celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, the Fruitans will have even more to cheer.

Orchard City, another western community, approved their ballot measure when 84 percent of voters deciding the issue chose to opt out. There are approximately 3,100 people here and a local cooperative, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) has started Phase I of  its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in the region. According to an August article in the Delta County Independent, Delta County Economic Development (DCED) has encouraged local towns, including Orchard City, to ask voters to opt out of SB 152. With the restriction removed, local towns can now collaborate with providers like DMEA.

In southwest Colorado is Pagosa Springs, where 83 percent of those voting supported the ballot measure to opt out. There are 1,700 people living in the community where many of the homes are vacation properties. Whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority was the only ballot issue in Pagosa Springs.

Silver Cliff began as a mining town and is home to only 587 people in the south central Wet Mountain Valley. Voters passed the ballot measure to opt-out of SB 152 with 80 percent of votes cast.

In the north central part of the state sits Wellington, population approximately 6,200. The community has some limited fiber and their ballot initiative specifically states that they intend to study the feasibility and viability of publicly provided services. Their initiative passed with 83 percent of the vote:

WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, WITH THE INTENT OF STUDYING FEASIBILITY AND IN THE FUTURE EVALUATING THE VIABILITY OF THE TOWN OF WELLINGTON POTENTIALLY PROVIDING SERVICES, SHALL THE CITIZENS OF THE TOWN OF WELLINGTON, COLORADO, ESTABLISH A TOWN RIGHT TO PROVIDE some or ALL of the SERVICES RESTRICTED SINCE 2005 BY TITLE 29, ARTICLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES, DESCRIBED AS "ADVANCES SERVICES," "TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES" AND "CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES," INCLUDING ANY NEW AND IMPROVED HIGH BANDWIDTH SERVICES BASED ON FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES, UTILIZING COMMUNITY OWNED AND PRIVATELY OWNED AND CONTRACTED FOR INFRASTRUCTURE INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO EXISTING FIBER OPTIC NETWORK, EITHER DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY WITH PUBLIC OR PRIVATE SECTOR PARTNERS, TO POTENTIAL SUBSCRIBERS THAT MAY INCLUDE TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICE PROVIDERS, RESIDENTIAL OR COMMERCIAL USERS WITHIN THE Town ?

Another small community, Westcliffe with 568 people, also took the issue to the voters. Of those voting on Ballot Question A, 76 percent voted "yes" to reclaim local telecommunications authority. The town is located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Custer County.

Two weeks ago, we told you about Mancos where community leaders want to explore the possibility of using existing publicly owned fiber for better connectivity. In Mancos, the Board of Trustees of the community of 1,300 recognized that the bill was anti-competitive and passed a resolution urging voters to approve the opt-out. As the Town Administrator acknowledged, reclaiming local authority, "gives us a lot more leeway." Mancos wants to have the freedom to investigate public projects and public private partnerships. Voters agreed and 86 percent of those casting ballots approved the measure.

C'mon Already!

Last November nearly 50 local communities sent a message loud and clear to the state legislature that they want the freedom to make their own decisions about connectivity. Opting out of SB 152 does not mean a community will build a muni but allows them to explore the possibility of serving themselves or using their own fiber assets to work with private sector partners.

For these communities, there is no good that comes from SB 152. Its only purpose is to limit possibilities and restrict competition in favor of the big corporate providers who lobbied so hard to get it passed in 2005.

We've said it before and we'll say it again. Rather than force local communities to spend local funds on these referendums to reclaim a right that was taken away from them by the state in 2005, Colorado needs to repeal the barriers erected by SB 152.