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Why Schools Need Big Bandwidth - Community Broadband Bits Episode 186

The St Vrain Valley School District, north of Denver and including the Longmont area, is transitioning from a shared gigabit network to dedicated 10 Gbps links for schools. Just what does it do with all that bandwidth? School District Chief Technology Officer Joe McBreen tells us this week in Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 186.

We talk about why the need for so much bandwidth and the incredible savings the school district has received from the municipal fiber network. Additionally, we discuss how self-provisioning would have been the second more cost-effective solution, far better than leasing lines from an existing provider.

Toward the end of our conversation, we touch on how students get access in their homes and what any business or manager needs to do to be successful, regardless of what industry he or she is in.
See our other stories about Longmont here.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 24 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.


Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

Collaborating to Light Up Opportunities in New York

"We have fiber in the ground that is currently dark...It's a resource we have that other communities want," said Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren at a November press conference. The city is now working with Monroe County to take advantage of that dark fiber.

There are more than 360 miles of fiber under the ground serving public safety entities, suburban police and fire departments, libraries, schools, and public works facilities. In downtown Rochester, there is enough fiber to provide the redundancy that high tech companies need to establish operations. Over the past two decades, there have been several public works projects involving excavation. During those projects, crews installed fiber.

There are approximately 211,000 people living in Rochester, the county seat of Monroe County. The county is situated along the northwest border of the state, along Lake Ontario; about 750,000 people live there.

City and county officials estimate that more than 70 percent of the fiber network capacity is not being used. Local leaders are taking steps to change that. In November, the two entities released a joint request for proposals (RFP) seeking an expert to assess the current network and make recommendations on how to make the most of their investment.

At the press conference to announce the collaboration, Warren said:

The Rochester community is fortunate to have a substantial fiber optic network already in place. Very few cities have the advantage of this infrastructure in their city center. We need to be sure that its capacity is being used wisely and, ultimately, that this capacity is being used to help employers create more jobs. This fiber network gives Rochester a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting companies with high bandwidth needs and the jobs they bring with them.

According to Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and Warren, the city and county are hoping to work with private partners. At the press conference, they suggested leasing out capacity but they acknowledged that this is only the first step in a long process.

Falmouth Saves With Cape Cod I-Net

Out on Cape Cod, municipal networks are taking hold. Public buildings throughout the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts, experience great connectivity and the town saves $160,000 each year with its own Institutional network (I-Net).

Public Savings

The Falmouth Area Network, maintained by CapeNet, connects 17 buildings throughout the town for a total of $3,000 each month ($2,500 from the school; $500 from the town). Were the town to go through a private provider, it would cost $1,000 for each building every month or $17,000 per month. By saving $14,000 each month, Falmouth's annual savings add up to approximately $160,000 a year. That’s a lot of money to be reinvested in the community of 31,000.

Falmouth Area Network intends to reach even more institutional buildings in the next few years. The 17 that are connected now are the libraries, the schools, the town hall, the police stations, the fire stations, the harbormaster’s office, and a senior center. Soon the Gus Canty Community Center will also gain a connection. At the Annual Town Meeting last week, the town approved the Capital Improvement Plan which included $80,000 to upgrade the network, including hooking up the community center. There are also plans to add a new wastewater treatment plan to the network in 2017.

The Role of OpenCape

The Falmouth Area Network came about thanks to another community-owned network project, the nonprofit OpenCape. Recently featured in an episode of eSTEAMers, OpenCape provides much needed middle mile connectivity throughout the Cape. The middle mile network does not connect business or residential users, but instead focuses on serving as a backbone of connectivity for towns. County, state, and federal grants funded construction of the $40 million OpenCape, which launched in 2013. The Falmouth Area Network connects to OpenCape, and a percentage of the city's annual fees go to OpenCape. 

Falmouth has more buildings connected than any of the other 15 Cape communities. The town’s success in capitalizing on access to OpenCape’s network has inspired other towns, such as Mashpee and Provincetown, to model their own networks after Falmouth.

Muni Fiber in Idaho Helps 911 Dispatch and First Responders - Community Broadband Bits Episode 173

Ammon, Idaho, continues to quietly build a future-looking open access fiber network. Though the City won't be providing services directly to subscribers, the network it is building and the model it has created could revolutionize public safety.

I just spent several days with them shooting our next video on community fiber networks (look for that in January). In episode 173 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with City Technology Director Bruce Patterson and Systems Network Administrator Ty Ashcraft.

Bruce explains how they plan to finance the network as it moves from the current residential pilot phase to being available broadly to any residents that want to connect, likely using a local improvement district model. Then Ty tells us about the portal that subscribers will be able to use to instantaneously pick and change service providers offering various services.

Additionally, we talk about the public safety implications of their technological and collaborative approach, specifically around the horrifying prospect of an armed shooter in a public space like a school or mall.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We spoke with Bruce about Ammon's plans previously in episode 86. Read all our coverage of Ammon here.

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

This show is 25 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."

School District Will Cut Connectivity Costs 85% With Public Fiber in Iowa

Plans for a fiber network collaboration between the city, school district, and county will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in Stormlake, Iowa. The school district recently voted to take advantage of significant savings for connectivity by switching to the publicly owned infrastrucutre as soon as the network is ready.

The Storm Lake Pilot recently reported that under the current contract with Vast Broadband, the district pays $7,500 per month to lease two strands of fiber. The new arrangement will allow the district to lease 12 fibers from the city-owned network for $14,000 per year or $1,167 per month - a reduction of approximately 85 percent. The city and the school district will enter into a 10-year agreement to ultimately save the district a total of $760,000 or approximately $6,333 per month during the term of the lease.

The school will still need to pay for Internet access and as part of the agreement will be responsible for purchasing its own equipment. The School Board voted unanimously to approve the agreement.

As we reported in July, the Stormlake project began as a way to better communication between water and wastewater utility facilities but then evolved into a public safety and cost saving initiative. All three entities - Storm Lake Community School District, the City of Storm Lake, and Buena Vista County - anticipate considerable savings and heightened reliability. We expect to report on more public savings as the community uses this valuable fiber asset.

Project costs for the system of conduit and fiber, which does not include hardware, are estimated at approximately $1,374,000 to be shared by all three entities. This first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed by December.

AnchorNETS Conference Nov. 16th - 17th in Mountainview, CA

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will present the first AnchorNETS Broadband Summit this November 16th & 17th in Mountainview, California. The event is designed to help leaders from anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries connect and learn about solutions to help them achieve gigabit connectivity. The conference will be held at the Computer History Museum. Our own Christopher Mitchell will be there as well.

Keynote Speakers include:

Attend AnchorNETS to:

  • Gain information and practical guidelines to access funding from Federal, State and Local government
  • Learn about the economics of middle-mile fiber deployment and the role of next generation wireless technology
  • Develop new community engagement practices and programs

More information is available on the web: www.anchornets.com, where you can check out the agenda, information on the speakers, and register online.

Download the flyer below for more information.

Carrier Neutral Facilities Creates Big Savings in Steamboat Springs

On July 6th and 7th, much of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, lost phone and Internet when a fiber line was cut, creating a public safety hazard. In order to aviod future massive outages and improve connectivity, Steamboat Springs has decided to develop a Carrier Neutral Location or CNL, much like a similar initiative in nearby Cortez.

In July a CenturyLink fiber optic line was accidentally cut by construction crews, disrupting the 911 emergency system for about 3 hours. No calls were missed, but it is a terrifying reminder of how small towns are dependent on incumbent providers like CenturyLink for basic services.

The community, located in the northwest corner of the state and home to about 12,000 people, is known as a popular ski destination in the winter months. Locations like Steamboat Springs have a natural beauty in the rugged terrain, but incumbent providers tend to see a poor return-on-investment rather than beauty.

The July incident was not the first. In October 2011, an 8-hour outage caused a potential $1 million loss to the economy. If the outage had taken place during peak tourist season, the estimated cost would have been $1 million per hour. In order to ensure their public safety and ability to attract economic development, leaders in Steamboat Springs have decided to end the possibility of massive outage caused by a single cut by investing in a place where multiple carriers can connect.

A CNL is a space owned and maintained by a neutral party where broadband providers can connect to each other to provide redundancy. Sometimes referred to as "meet-me rooms," CNLs are especially useful for middle- and last-mile providers to connect. The facility drives down the cost of bandwidth for community anchor institutions and service providers because they do not require a separate facility for connections and fees are typically reasonable. The CNL in Steamboat Springs went online on June 1st, 2014.

In the first year, the CNL allowed the school district, the city, and the county to buy from middle-mile providers Mammoth Networks and EagleNet. Formerly, the school district paid CenturyLink $23 per Mbps per month for 300 Mbps but now purchases 700 Mbps per month for $6.80 per Mbps from ISP Mammoth.

Funding for the CNL was provided by a private donation of $125,000 and $5,000 each from the city, the county, the chamber, the school district, and the medical center for a total of $150,000. The CNL’s operating costs are about $10,500. 

Northwest Colorado Broadband (NCB), a cooperative formed in 2012 includes local government, educational, utilty, and business entities from the region. The cooperative allows the project to function without running afoul of SB 152, the Colorado law passed that prevents local government from providing telecommunications services. NCB will manage the fiber connections and the CNL. By joining forces, the partners anticipate significant savings, better reliability, and access to more capcaity.

Tom Kern, CEO of the Steamboat Chamber and NCB President stated in a press release [PDF]:

This is a creative way to achieve expanded service for a significantly lower cost to critical community institutions...By consolidating demand, members will be able to obtain enormous broadband capacity at about a tenth of the cost they currently pay.

In addition to the CNL, Routt county has found a consultant to study broadband deficiencies throughout the county. The cost was partially covered by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. NCB, Steamboat Springs School District, the city of Steamboat Springs, Yampa Valley Medical Center and Yampa Valley Electric Association provided the remaining funding for the study.

For more information on Steamboat Springs and the CNL, check out Community Broadband Bits Episode 163, in which Chris interviews Tim Miles, the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts.