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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.

Maine Island Stranded Without Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 155

Many communities feel like they are an island without proper connectivity but Islesboro, Maine, is literally an island... without proper connectivity. This week, we talk with Page Clason, Manager of the Broadband Internet Working Group for the island that is moving toward a fiber solution to expand high quality Internet access.

We discuss the differences between a mainland community and island life, the dynamic between full time residents and people who live on the island part of the time, and what Islesboro is doing to ensure everyone has high quality Internet access.

We also touch on the discussions around how to pay for the fiber. We recently wrote about the vote to move forward with an engineering study and contractor search.

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."

LD 1185 Advances in Maine With Overwhelming Support

On June 5th, the Main House of Representatives voted 143 - 0 in favor of LD 1185, the Maine bill to provide state planning and implementation grants for local municipal networks. Representative Norm Higgins, the sponsor of the bill, contacted us to let us know about the incredible support for the bill.

LD 1185 proposes to provide $6 million this year for local communities seeking to establish networks that want to take advantage of the state's middle-mile network, the Three Ring Binder. The House amended the bill to include general goals for the fund and its purpose in bringing better connectivity to Maine. 

The amendment also creates specifications between planning and implementation grants and establishes caps on awards. Planning grants cannot exceed $25,000 and implementation grants cannot exceed $200,000. Implementation grants require a 25 percent match from the requesting municipality; planning grants require a one-to-one match. The amendment is available online.

Now that the House has put their stamp of approval on the bill, it is up to the Maine Senate to  approve the measure and send it on to the Governor. According to Higgins, it appears to have strong bipartisan support; funding is the only area of uncertainty. He anticipates it will be before the Appropriations Committee within the next two weeks.

Another Rural Telephone Cooperative to Deploy Gigabit Fiber Network

Residents in the southeast rural town of Frontenac, Kansas, will have access to fiber by the spring of 2016, reports the FourStatesHomePage.com

After receiving approval from the Frontenac City Council, the Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative announced that it intends to deploy fiber within the city of 3,400. Each home will have access; gigabit service will cost approximately $70 per month. Construction will begin this summer.

From the article and the video embedded below:

"It's just superior to anything out there. I mean, we've been doing fiber for several years. We have well over 2,000 customers, and I think we just finally asked ourselves why are we restricting the use of this fiber optic cable when it can do so much more than what most people are receiving?" said Craig Wilbert, Craw-Kan General Manager.

Lessons Learned from Community Outreach in Gilberts, Illinois

Earlier this year, we reported on the Village of Gilberts, Illinois, where voters defeated a measure to approve general obligation bonds for a municipal network project. Our story got the attention of Bill Beith, Assistant Village Administrator from Gilberts who contacted us to talk about the project and provide detail on their efforts to educate the voters prior to the election.

The project would have raised property taxes 1.8 percent or approximately $150 per year on a property with a $250,000 market value. Even though the network would have been a publicly owned asset, Beith believes the idea of any new taxes defeated the measure. As the community considered the project, voters stated repeatedly that Comcast or one of the other incumbents should pay for deployment of infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Village had approached incumbents who had no interest in building in Gilberts. They felt the investment would not pay off in a community that is home to about 6,800 people.

The proposed project was to be deployed along side a private fiber network. When the developer of a new housing development learned that fiber significantly increases the value of real estate, he chose to include it to each new home. He also chose to bring the network to a nearby school along with several public safety and municipal facilities at no charge to the Village. 

The project on which voters denied funding would have extended fiber to the rest of the community. According to Beith, the developer still plans to continue his fiber build in an incremental fashion. In addition to the homes in the new housing development, he will focus on commercial connectivity in the Village of Gilberts.

Even though the measure failed in April, the Village will continue to explore ways to work with the developer. According to Beith, he and other advocates for improving connectivity in Gilberts walked away with some valuable lessons for the future.

Ultimately, timing played an important role. Because referendum rules precluded the Village from advocating a position on the project, Beith felt their ability to share the potential benefits was compromised. If the Village needs to ask a similar question to the voters in the future, they will begin educating the public long before the referendum question is determined.

Beith also believes that the citizen Facebook page could have played a more instrumental role if it had been developed earlier. He found that it became a place for online debate and felt that, if it had been up and running earlier, advocates could have used the forum as a way to address arguments or misinformation early in the process.

The Village created NetworkGilberts.com and Beith believes that branding the idea of the network was a good way to introduce the initiative to the public. They also posted some basic videos to provide basic information on connectivity. If they had offered videos earlier in the process, the Village could have presented a waider range of material. Beith noted that they were also restricted in what links the the Village could provide and could only offer factual resources that did not advocate for or against the project.

According to Beith, the Village held an open house where they provided live demonstrations of 300 Mbps Internet access via fiber, a pair of 4K big screen TVs and eight assorted devices streaming simultaneously. Approximately 50 or 60 people attended the open house but Bill described the atmosphere as skeptical. It is his belief that the people attending the open house were undecided while those that stayed away had already determined how they would vote.

The Village of Gilberts must wait two years until this issue can be presented to the voters again. Beith is hopeful that by that time word will spread that access to fiber is unsurpassed and demand will grow. Many things can happen in two years and, as we have seen in other communities, it often takes several attempts for referendums to pass.

Small Texas Town Don't Need No Stinkin' CenturyLink

The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:

At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”

After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:

“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”

Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.

Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbps download and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:

“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”

Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:

“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.

Graphic: LD 1185 Proposes Planning Grants for Munis in Maine

In late April, LD 1185 and several other broadband bills came before the Maine House Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. We have seen a flurry of activity in Maine this year as local communities deploy networks, develop plans, or begin feasibility studies. Likewise, the state legislature has been active as House and Senate members try to defibrillate the barely beating heart of the state listed as 49th for broadband availability.

The national providers in Maine - Time Warner Cable and FairPoint have little interest or capacity to invest in high quality services in Maine. Time Warner Cable is more focused on major metros and being acquired. FairPoint is laying off workers and also, positioning itself to be acquired. Fortunately, these big companies aren't the only option for improving Internet connectivity in Maine.

LD 1185, presented by Representative Norm Higgins, seeks to establish $6 million this year in funds for local communities that wish to deploy municipal networks. Maine already has the middle mile Three Ring Binder in place; the focus of this proposal is to help communities get the infrastructure they need to connect to it. In an effort to get the word out about the bill and grow support, Higgins and his team created this graphic explaining the proposal (a 2-page printable edition of the graphic is available for download from the link below):

LD 1185 Graphic

LD 1185 Graphic

According to a recent Legislative Bulletin from the Maine Municipal Association, LD 1185 and LD 1063, which redirects ConnectME towards issuing planning grants, appear to have the most traction of all the Maine bills. Testifying in support of both bills were the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the ConnectME Authority, the University of Maine, Great Works Internet, Maine Fiber Company, the AARP, and the Coastal and Island Institutes. The Mayors' Coalition, and community officials from Rockport, Isleboro, South Portland, and Orono also testified in favor of the bills.

From the Office of the Public Advocate's Testimony on LD 1185:

The bill proposes to provide municipalities with matching grants to fund broadband planning efforts, and provide technical support to those communities. Providing this kind of assistance to communities is important to ensuring that those communities make informed decisions regarding use of public funds for broadband investment. The bill offers several novel and useful concepts not seen in other legislation that are particularly promising.

As can be expected, Verizon, Fairpoint, Time Warner Cable, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine testified in opposition.

Small ISPs and Paperwork - Community Broadband Bits Episode 151

Back in March, I spoke at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom conference, which is always an event with interesting people. While there, I met Doug Hammer and Krista Allen of Harlan Utilities. With just over 5,000 people, Harlan is small but they actually have better Internet and cable choices than most of us, in large part due to the municipal utility.

Doug is the Director of Marketing and Krista the Director of Finance & Customer Service. We spoke again for this week's show about the challenge small ISPs have in just completing the paperwork required of ISPs by the federal government. Though small utilities like Harlan have only a few staff people, they are subject to many of the same forms as much larger companies.

We talk about the paperwork, but also some of the benefits that Harlan's municipal utility brings to the community.

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 22 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."