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"Digital New England" Conference Set for September 27th, 28th in Portland

Over the past year, New England has been a hotspot for broadband initiatives, legislation, and experimentation. The trend will continue into September when Next Century Cities and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) host Digital New England: A Summit for Regional Broadband Leaders on September 27th and 28th in Portland, Maine.

From a description of the event:

Broadband is emerging as a critical driver of economic growth and prosperity in New England. The “Digital New England” broadband summit will bring together state, local and federal officials, industry representatives, community leaders and other key stakeholders to share real-world broadband success stories and lessons learned from across the region. The summit will also examine the gaps that remain and strategize on what still needs to be done to expand access to and adoption of high-speed Internet services for the benefit of all citizens.

The event will start with a welcome reception on Sunday evening. Monday's day-long summit will include discussions on numerous topics that cover investment, access, and adoption. Come listen to some panel discussions and participate in some break-out workshops.

The welcome reception will be held at the Gulf Maine Research Institute at 350 Commercial St. in Portland. Monday's summit will be at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St. in Portland.

Take a look at the schedule for this free event and register online at the Eventbrite page.

Santa Cruz Fiber Project with Cruzio

Santa Cruz, California, and its 62,000 people with poor Internet connectivity near Silicon Valley, could be one of the larger municipalities to develop a citywide fiber network. The Santa Cruz Fiber project, which was announced on June 24, 2015, would be an open-access public private partnership (PPP) with the city constructing the network and a private company, Cruzio, serving as network operator. The plans are preliminary, but the announcement highlighted the project’s emphasis on local ownership: 

“A locally-owned, next-generation broadband network operated openly and independently and built for Santa Cruz, [the Santa Cruz Fiber Project] is uniquely tailored to fit the diverse needs of the Santa Cruz community.” 

Cruzio is one of the oldest and largest Internet service providers in California. Completely locally-owned and staffed, Cruzio is rooted in Santa Cruz County. The company’s name perfectly describes it. Cruz- from Santa Cruz and -io from I/O (Input/Output, communication between an information processing system and the rest of the world).  Our Christopher Mitchell is gushing over the name and says: “I seriously love it.”

Fiber is not a new commodity in Santa Cruz. Since 2011, Cruzio has installed fiber in several of its projects, and the fiber has wooed some 30 entrepreneurs and solo practitioners to stay in the downtown area at the Cruzio Works, a co-working space. Last November, Central Coast Broadband Consortium commissioned a study of the fiber networks in Santa Cruz (paid for with a grant from the California Public Utilities commission). They discovered more fiber under the city of Santa Cruz than in any other city in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito. Unfortunately much of it belonged to incumbent providers like Comcast and AT&T who are loath to lease dark fiber or make affordable fiber connections available to local businesses and residents. 

Then, just this past June, Comcast announced the planned rollout of Gigabit Pro near Silicon Valley, but not Santa Cruz. Even if Comcast changes its mind, the city has already found a local private partner in Cruzio. This local public-private partnership will almost certainly result in far more benefits to the community than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro. This network will be under local control and responsive to community needs.  

The intention of the partnership is to pursue an open access model. At first, the network will be solely a public-private partnership where the City of Santa Cruz will own the network and Cruzio will construct and operate it. During the initial stages, Cruzio will provide the expertise in network management that the city of Santa Cruz does not necessarily have. After a number of years, the network will open up to more service providers in order to promote competition, which is how Westminster has arranged its partnership with Ting in Maryland. 

The goal of the FTTH project proposal according to Cruzio is to connect 6,000 households and businesses by the end of the third year. Currently, the construction costs are estimated at $52 million. The City staff will present a report to city council by the end of this September on the potential Fiber Project’s feasibility. Early project estimates suggest the network would be mostly completed by late 2018. If the take-rate is feasible, the city intends to back the network with municipal revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are repaid through the sale of networking services, not through taxes. This ensures that those who use the network will pay for the network. Cruzio is now surveying residents to determine interest and creating an engineering report. 

New Reference From U-W Extension A Library Must-Have

The University of Wisconsin-Extension recently released Broadband Policies and Regulations for Wisconsin Stakeholders, a good addition to your digital library, especially if you have in interest in Wisconsin and midwestern broadband issues.

The document provides case studies and an in-depth list of references addressing:

  • Public-private partnerships
  • Local ordinances
  • Technology councils
  • Community engagement
  • Local government telecommunications services
  • Unique efforts to increase adoption

While many examples hail from Wisconsin communities, the authors also provide information from other states and offers links to information such as local government broadband resolutions, tower agreements between municipalities and private internet service providers, successful applications for state and federal grant funds. 

The Broadband Policies and Regulations for Wisconsin Stakeholders is well organized and indexed. You can download the PDF, or access the online flip book for quick reference.

Modest Investment Yields Results in Steamboat Springs - Community Broadband Bits Episode 163

When Steamboat Springs resolved to improve Internet access for key community anchor institutions and businesses, they decided to make an economical investment in a carrier neutral facility to allow multiple ISPs to invest and compete with each other. In episode 163 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, Tim Miles explains what that means and how they did it.

Tim is the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts in Colorado. He tells us about the poor connectivity the community had from CenturyLink and how they opened a bottleneck to encourage more investment. In part because of how Colorado limits local authority to build networks, they formed the Northwest Colorado Broadband Cooperative with the local Chamber of Commerce.

They are already seeing benefits in the form of lower prices for anchor institutions and reduced outages - Tim describes just how painful those outages had been when there was no local Internet choice.

Read the transcript from this discussion 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."

Carl Junction Pulls Out of Public Private Partnership

In the spring, we reported on a public private partnership agreement between the community of Carl Junction and Wi-Fi provider Aire Fiber. According to City Administrator, Steve Lawver, the City Council had second thoughts and pulled out of the deal.

Even though the partnership has ceased to be an option, the people of Carl Junction will still have better connectivity. Aire Fiber found the interest level was so intense that it will independently deploy the equipment to serve the community's 5.6 square miles and approximately 7,400 people.

As part of the abandoned partnership agreement, the city would have paid for and provided locations to mount necessary equipment. Aire Fiber would have handled installation, management, and technical aspects needed to keep the network up and running. In exchange, the city would have received 10 percent of the gross revenue from the network. The system would have cost an estimated $400,000 - $450,000 to deploy and both entities estimated just 10 percent of the market would have allowed them to break even.

Now the city has typical water tower lease agreements with Aire Fiber. Each tower mounting Aire Fiber equipment brings in $100 per month. 

Carl Junction has been searching for better Internet access for its businesses, schools, and residents for several years. In 2012 they commissioned a feasibility study and decided in 2013 to move forward with plans for a fiber network. Unfortunately, the community had to seek other options when it chose not fund the $5.2 million project.

As a post mortem, Lawver advises other city officials to take the time to educate elected officials and not rush the process, especially when the time comes for final approval. 

Our process from FTTH feasibility to this final agreement took 4 or 5 years.  Be patient. Understand that if you get down to the final agreement there is a good chance you may be the only person left that remembers the whole process.

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

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

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

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

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

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.