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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.

Video: Westminster and Ting Kick Off Deployment

Westminster recently officially lit up the new fiber network with its partner Ting. They create several videos to record the event, including this montage of interviews with movers and shakers in the municipal network industry. The two partners announced their agreement earlier this year: the city will own the infrastructure and Ting will provide retail services to local residents and businesses via the network.

In the video you will see Dr. Robert Wack, the City Council Member behind the initiative, along with leading telecom attorney Jim Baller, Gigi Sohn from the FCC, and Deb Socia who heads up Next Century Cities.

Check it out:

 

WiredWest Grows: Roster of Towns Up to 22

Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.

According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.

Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:

A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.

Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:

Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.

Communities in western Massachusetts are each taking up authorization needed to cover their share of the connectivity project. All but one of 23 towns voting thus far have exhibited strong support. In Montgomery - that one town that did not support the proposal - the measure lost by only two votes, reported the Berkshire Eagle. Chesterfield and Goshen approved funding earlier this month, both to big crowds of voters. Leyden approved their participation at a meeting in May with a 90-33 vote.

Of the 45 towns eligible to participate and obtain state funding, 33 Select Boards have committed to presenting bond authorization measures before their voters. Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest's Board of Directors told the Eagle in June:

"Ultimately, the overwhelming votes so far are a resounding affirmation that the citizens, businesses and institutions of Western Mass. towns underserved by broadband are ready, willing and eager to move forward with the WiredWest regional fiber network."

We spoke with Webb in May in episode #149 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Local residents who were tired of dial-up and satellite established the cooperative as a way to band together and turn up the volume on their collective voice. Each community has representation on the executive board and will receive a share of state funding designated for the project.

At the meeting in New Salem, the town's Broadband Committee Chair MaryEllen Kennedy told told the audience:

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire, another reason we thought a government co-op was the way to go."

The next step in New Salem and in other Massachusetts communities where voters have approved borrowing is to hold a special town election to approve an exemption to Massachusetts' Proposition 2 1/2 tax levy limit.

CNS Expanding Fiber in Rural Georgia

Community Network Services (CNS) has been serving six rural southwest Georgia communities since the late 1990s. Recently, we learned that the network added two more communities to its service area when it took over a small municipal cable system in Doerun and purchased a private cable company in Norman Park.

CNS has been our radar since 2012 when we learned how Thomasville, Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Baconton, and Pelham joined together to create a regional network that reached into 4 counties. The network has brought better access to rural Georgia, improved educational opportunities, and helped lower taxes.

Mike Scott, Moultrie City Manager, gave us details on the expansions into both of these very small communities. Scott repeated the CNS philosophy:

We don't look at it as a just a business plan…we look at it as economic development for the entire county.

Doerun, population 774, had its own municipal DSL and cable TV system but it needed significant upgrades. Doerun also faced increased costs for content, technology, and personnel challenges, and customers wanted faster connectivity. CNS and the community of Doerun had discussed the possibility of a CNS take over of the system in the past but network officials hesitated to take on the investment until Doerun upgraded due to the condition of the system. Doerun's school was already connected to the CNS network.

In addition to the problems with the network, an upgrade required considerable make-ready work. CNS estimated that preparing existing utility poles for fiber would be expensive, according to Scott, and network officials did not feel comfortable making that additional investment. 

Like many other small rural communities, Doerun operates its own municipal electric utility. The electric system was also in need of upgrades but due to lack of available capital, the city would need to borrow to fund the work. CNS and Doerun worked out an agreement to transfer the cable TV and Internet access system to CNS for mutual benefit.

CNS paid $100,000 as an advance franchise fee for 10 years, which reduced the amount Doerun needed to borrow to upgrade its municipal electric utility. In exchange, Doerun entered into the pole attachment agreements with CNS in order to string fiber on electric utility poles. As Doerun electric utility crews worked to upgrade the electric system, CNS fiber deployment crews worked alongside Doerun's construction crews replacing the old cable lines with fiber in the correct positions on Doerun's utility poles.

Rates in Doerun are the same as in other CNS communities. Internet access is as economical as $19.95 for 3 Mbps / .5 Mbps but published rates also list 35 Mbps / 3 Mbps for $49.95. A variety of bundles are available that include video, Internet, and phone. For a complete list of packages and rates, check out the CNS Moultrie residential pricing brochure [PDF].

The story in nearby Norman Park was somewhat similar. A private cable TV provider that did not offer Internet access served Norman Park, population 972. The small local company had passed to the deceased founder's son but the system, which covered the town's 3 square miles, was outdated. Rather than invest in the necessary repairs and updates, he sold it to CNS. As in Doerun, CNS eventually decided the best choice was to rebuild with fiber.

Prior to the purchase, CNS had leased a line to connect the Norman Park school to the CNS backbone; this expansion eliminated the need for the lease. Now all the schools in Colquitt County are served by CNS and each has 10 gigabits of bandwidth.

CNS provides Internet access to the Doerun and Norman Park city halls and both are in the process of transferring over to VoIP.  Scott did not have figures for city halls in Doerun and Norman Park, but noted that the city of Moultrie cut its phone costs in half by switching to VoIP and eliminating multiple phone lines. In addition to eliminating lines for office phones, Moultrie was able to cancel lines to pump stations, lift stations, and other facilities used to monitor facilities for their SCADA system.

Now the citizens of Doerun and Norman Park can utilize the same fast, affordable, reliable services available in neighboring towns. These two rural communities with limited options needed better connectivity so CNS stepped in.

Lafayette Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of "Yes" to Network

In June, 2005, voters in Lafayette chose to invest in a municipal FTTH network, now known as the only municipal gigabit network in the state, LUS Fiber. To celebrate the milestone, City-Parish President Joey Durel has declared July LUS Fiber Month. Current customers' Internet access has been boosted up to gigabit speed at no extra charge for July and the city will celebrate with a series of events this week. The entire community is invited to participate onsite but most of the events will be broadcast live so if you are not there, you can be part of the celebration. See the list of events below.

In the past ten years, the network has attracted thousands of new jobs, created better educational opportunities, and helped bridge the digital divide. Just last fall, three high tech companies committed to bringing approximately 1,300 new jobs to the "Silicon Bayou." The presence of the network, the University of Louisiana's local top-ranked computer science program, and its quality grads were two more key factors for choosing Lafayette. In April, Standard & Poor gave LUS Fiber an A+ bond rating based on the system's "sustained strong fixed charge coverage and liquidity levels, and the communication system’s improved cash flow."

The July issue of the local Independent tells the story of the network. According to Terry Huval, Director of LUS Fiber, the self-reliant streak has always been part of Lafayette's culture - in 1996 the city celebrated its 100th year vote to create its own electric and water system. The Independent article describes that culture as it permeated the vision shared by City-Parish President Joey Durel and  Huval.

"The vision was simple: Lafayette was already benefiting from a very successful electric, water and wastewater system, and LUS could leverage its expertise to offer Internet and other telecommunications services, if that is what our community wanted,” he says. “After we threw out the idea, the entrepreneurial, wildcatter spirit of Lafayette seemed to take it from there.”

lus-fiber-win-fight.jpg

Even with a vision, it took strong community organizing to overcome incumbent efforts to derail any municipal network project. John St. Julien was at the front of those efforts; he spoke with Chris in episode #19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about organizing strategies and fending off attacks from incumbent providers. Mobilizing to improve connectivity with a fiber network brought together individuals from every demographic in the community. Business leaders worked with community activists because they all needed better connectivity.

Fighting misinformation and lies from incumbents became a valuable tool, reports the Independent:

The citizen group was able to settle into reaction mode: Once the dumb, clunky messages came out, they took to their emails and blog and pointed out every single lie. It wasn’t just an opportunity to educate; it was an opportunity to draw on local pride and, again, that spirit of audacity. “It was a lot of fun to watch, waiting for them to say something else ridiculous and outrageous,” John St. Julien remembers.

Those clunky messages eventually backfired and, with anti-incumbent sentiment strong, the voters chose to serve themselves with a publicly owned, accountable, reliable municipal network.

Achieving success has not been easy as LUS Fiber has had to contend with lawsuits, delays, restrictive state laws, and twisted criticisms over the past ten years. While Lafayette has much to celebrate, Huval reflected in the Independent article on what more could have been accomplished if the situation were different:

We entered this arena as underdogs.

We had to fight for every success we achieved. We were forced to accept a law that was going to make our entry into this business far more difficult. We incurred lawsuit delay after lawsuit delay — delays that impacted our entry into this competitive market for three years. I know of no local government telecom system that has had to go through the extreme challenges we encountered.

If we would not have had all these early legal impediments, we would have been on-line faster and drawn in far more customers, more quickly. If we could have captured the level of strong enthusiasm in those early years, there is no doubt our revenues would have been stronger, and we could have been even more creative and aggressive. ... Under the circumstances, there was not much we could have done differently and still reach a successful business result.

We concur. Lafayette's success is all the more powerful given the tremendous obstacles they had to overcome. But they overcame them and kept a sense of humor throughout. We have greatly enjoyed every opportunity to interact with everyone we have met from Lafayette - from Joey Durel, Terry Huval, and John St Julien to recent transplant Geoff Daily to the folks making poboys at Olde Tyme Grocery.

Thanks to the city utility, local Cox customers report that the company appears to be reacting to the competition with more reasonable rates and better customer service. LUS Fiber is in the black and revenues are projected to reach $50 million per year in the next nine years. While LUS Fiber and the people of Lafayette are celebrating success as measured by time on the calendar, they can also celebrate their own grit and determination. 

Durel to the Independent:

I knew this had the possibility of transforming Lafayette — that 25 years later, Lafayette would be a better place because of this...Even if fiber just breaks even, but we create thousands of new jobs because of it, that’s a win.

Watch video below from KLFY Channel 10 reported on the network earlier this month, highlighting one of the telemedicine applications made possible by LUS Fiber.

 


Schedule of events:

Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) With City-Parish President Joey Durel and LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval

Tuesday, July 14th - 1:30 - 3:30 p.m.

Get answers to your questions as we host an AMA session. Join us by going to http://reddit.com/r/iama

Fiber for Breakfast

logo-LUS.gif

Wednesday, July 15 - 7:00 - 10:30 a.m. CST


Live Remote Broadcast on KATC-TV 
LUS Fiber Customer Service Center - 1875 W. Pinhook Road
Join us for a live remote braodcast on KATC-TV and a breakfast bite.

George Porter, Jr. & the Runnin Pardners
 The Park at the Horse Farm

Levitt Amp Concert Series feat.

Wednesday, July 15 - 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.


Come out and celebrate with LUS Fiber - a night of great music and fun, in a venue steeped with history.

LUS Fiber joins City-Parish President Joey Durel for "Lafayette Live" on KPEL


Thursday, July 16 - 7:30 - 8:00 p
.m.

City-Parish President Joey Durel is joined by LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval during "Lafayette Live" on 96.5 KPEL. Be sure to tune-in as they reminisce the 2005 Election and the ten-year road that followed.

Our report, Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks dives deep into Lafayette's accomplishment. But in terms of our enthusiasm for what Lafayette has accomplished, well ... Kermit is a pretty good proxy for how we feel:

Call Center Central: Morristown, Tennessee?

The city of Morristown, Tennessee received more positive economic news recently when Sykes Enterprises, a global company that operates in more than 20 countries, announced plans to open a call center in an abandoned big-box store and connect to the city’s municipal network, FiberNet. Sykes estimates that the call center will employ up to 500 workers over the next three years, the large majority of which will come from the Morristown community. 

In Morristown, Sykes will join Oddello Industries, a furniture manufacturer, and the Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network, a personalized health firm – other companies that have cited the fiber network as an important part of their decision to locate facilities in the city of 30,000 people. 

According to the president of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce, Marshall Ramsey, the existence of FiberNet played a role in attracting the 50,000-plus employee firm to Tennessee: 

For Morristown to be able to have a local provider and a secondary provider in AT&T with a gig gives us that redundancy that most companies can’t get elsewhere in the country. 

FiberNet is operated by Morristown Utility Systems, the publicly owned electric and water utility. It began offering gigabit Internet speeds in 2012, though it has served local businesses since 2006. 

This is the second time in two months WBIR – Morristown’s NBC network – has run a story about FiberNet. In May, the station covered the way in which the municipal fiber network has stimulated economic development by increasing competition between service providers. When FiberNet upgraded its network to provide gigabit speeds, the incumbent telephone company in Morristown, AT&T, responded with some upgrades of its own. Morristown is one of a select few cities to have multiple gigabit-offerings, along with neighboring Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

Chris interviewed General Manager and CEO of FiberNet, Jody Wigington, in 2013 to discuss the municipal network’s deployment. You can find the interview here.

Local station WBIR covered the story:

Rural Rio Blanco County Builds Open Access Fiber, Wireless - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 158

Rio Blanco County is a large, rural county in northwestern Colorado that has two population centers. The county has a sharp plan for building FTTH to the population centers and wireless across most of the county to improve Internet access in a region the national carriers have little interest in.

In this week's episode, we interview county IT Director Blake Mobley, who has long been involved in improving Internet access for community anchor institutions in the area. We talk about their plan and how they are financing it (enabled in part by the Department of Local Affairs in Colorado - which has helped many community networks).

We also discuss many other aspects of what it takes to create a project like this -- including building trust among local stakeholders -- and their particular open access approach and terminology for the different layers in the stack of entities involved.

Finally, Blake tells us what they believe has to happen for the project to be successful. Read their vision statement here. Read our full coverage of Rio Blanco County stories 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 23 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."

Last-Mile FTTH Via Nonprofit Networks in New York State

Western New York residents are welcoming the presence of a new Internet service provider, Empire Access, competing directly with Time Warner Cable and Verizon. Besides satisfied customers, no data caps, and no usage-based billing, Empire is different from the incumbents in another way - it uses nonprofit network infrastructure to deliver services.

StopTheCap writes that Empire Access utilizes the Southern Tier Network (STN) to connect to communities in Steuben, Chemung, and Schuyler Counties in its southern service area. STN's 235-mile backbone was deployed when fiber-optic manufacturer Corning contributed $10 million to build the network and the three counties contributed the remaining $2.2 million. Construction on the open access network was finished in the spring of 2014.

Axcess Ontario provides the fiber route in the northern region of the Empire Access service area. The network is also a non-profit model and similarly developed to serve business, community anchor institutions, and ISPs. The organization began 10 years ago with the establishment of the nonprofit. The Ontario County Office of Economic Development /Industrial Development Agency provided startup costs to deploy the $7.5 million middle-mile open access dark fiber network. Axcess Ontario is also over 200 miles long. 

For now, the locally-owned company that began in 1896 with one telephone and grew from there, is taking a different approach then its much larger competitors. From StopTheCap:

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

In some towns, where Empire has a franchise agreement, it offers cable TV in addition to Internet access. Empire customers have access to gigabit FTTH service as of March, when the company officially began the offering in Naples:

Village of Naples Mayor Brian Schenk says the service will be a game-changer for the community's economy.

"We are thrilled to see 1 Gigabit service and fiber-to-the-home launch in Naples," he said. 

"Those of us who live here and work here cherish our beautiful, Finger Lakes community. Now, with 1 Gigabit and fiber to the home, more people and more businesses can invest in Naples and experience it for themselves."

Middle-mile networks like Axcess Ontario and STN have rarely evolved thus far into tools that facilitate last-mile connectivity. Nevertheless, this is a sign that with the right partners, it can happen:

With the new agreement with Empire Access, the fiber ring's ultimate goal of providing fiber-to-the-home service has now been achieved, said Ed Hemminger, one of the original founders of the fiber ring and Axcess Ontario's first CEO.

"Ten years ago, we had a dream of one day having 1 Gigabit and fiber-to-the-home service in Ontario County," he said. "Today, that dream has come true. And we didn't need Google to do it — we did it ourselves."

Chanute's FTTH Project on Hold Indefinitely

Changes in leadership in Chanute have put the community's FTTH plan in suspended animation. In April, the City Commission decided to delay financing shortly before the scheduled bond sale. It is unfortunate that residents and businesses will lose the opportunities the fiber deployment would bring. Nevertheless, they deserve the right to make their own choices, good or bad.

The community of Chanute deployed a network incrementally with no borrowing or bonding in order to improve efficiencies, save public dollars, and control connectivity for municipal facilities. Local schools and colleges, struggling to compete, began taking advantage of technology in the classroom and expanded distance learning. The network eventually created a number of economic development opportunities when community leaders started providing better connectivity to local businesses. We told Chanute's story in our 2013 report "Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage." 

Chanute made history when it was the first municipality in Kansas to obtain permission from the Kansas Corporation Commission to issue bonds for the project. They also became the first municipality in the state to seek and receive "eligible telecommunications carrier" (ETC) status. Chanute was awarded over $500,000 in Rural Broadband Experiment Funds from the FCC. Whether or not they will still be able to take advantage of those funds remains a question. After taking action and putting so many of the necessary pieces in place, it is disheartening to see the plan abandoned by politicians.

Regardless of the future of the FTTH project, Chanute has the infrastructure in place to encourage more economic development, connect community anchor institutions, and allow the community to control its own costs. The FTTH project is still a possibility.

You can learn about the origins of Chanute's network in episode #16 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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.