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Sun Prairie Utilities' Pilot Project Shows Way to Better Connectivity

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

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

In the Pilot Project, So Much Demand!

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

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

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

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

Pilot Project Teaches Lessons

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

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

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

Reedsburg Utility Commission Receives State Grant for Expansion

In April 2015, Wisconsin's Brett Schuppner from the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) had a conversation with Chris about the utility's plan to expand the municipal fiber network. Funding is one of the biggest challenges but in December, the RUC learned that it a state grant will help move those plans forward.

WisNews recently reported that the RUC applied for $110,000 to bring the triple-play fiber network to Buckhorn Lake in Sauk County. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced on December 11th that the RUC will instead receive $69,300 which will allow the network to extend to an additional 105 homes and 40 properties. From the article:

Schuppner said an informal survey of members of the Buckhorn Property Owners’ Association suggests the utility commission will likely recover its out-of-pocket costs for the project not covered by the grant of about $40,000 from new users in the first year.

RUC began serving the community in 2003, expanding in 2011, and offering gigabit service in 2014. The community is located about 55 miles northwest of Madison and home to approximately 10,000 people.

Ten other entities across the state also received grants. RUC anticipates construction to begin on this expansion early this year.

Madison, Wisconsin Pilot: Fiber In The Fall

Four low-income neighborhoods in Madison will soon have access to fast, reliable, affordable Internet access, thanks to a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) pilot program.

Fast, Affordable, Reliable...Soon!

According to a recent Cap Times article, installation will begin in the spring of 2016; community leaders anticipate the network will start serving residents in the fall. The cost of the pilot is estimated at $512,000. The original plan was to offer the pilot in two areas, but in the City Council recently approved an amendment to the city budget to cover the cost of expanding the pilot. Funds for the construction will come from the city's capital budget.

When the city first released its RFP, it received 3 proposals. Ultimately, the city selection committee chose the only FTTH proposal over two wireless proposals, citing reliability and speed as determining factors. Local Internet service provider ResTech will build the network, which will be owned by the city. Residential subscribers will have access to a minimum 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload (symmetrical) service for $9.99 per month. There will be no data caps.

Testing the Waters

The Cap Times reports that the results of the pilot will determine the next steps for the city, population 243,000, which has flirted with the idea of a citywide municipal network in the past:

In conjunction with the pilot, Madison will be pursuing a feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to expand the Internet service to other parts of the city in the future.

The city is working with Columbia Telecommunications Corporation for the feasibility study component as a parallel track to the pilot.

The pilot will be two years, and [Chief Information Officer Paul] Kronberger said they hope to have enough data to do the cost-benefit analysis after about one year of operation.

$117,000 Broadband Service Disaster From Charter

Shocking horror stories about incumbent ISPs reaching new lows for poor service are now so common that they have become routine. A story from Ars that recently went viral puts a human face on the frustration millions of Americans endure just trying to determine if Internet access is available where they choose to live. First, here is the gist of the story.

Cole Marshall, a work-from-home web developer, decided he wanted to build a new home on the outskirts of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. While scouting properties, he confirmed with local incumbent ISPs Comcast and Frontier online and by phone that they could offer sufficient Internet access to his favored lot.

When Marshall completed construction and contacted Charter, the cable company offered to provide the service only if he paid $117,000 to extend their network to his home. And Frontier? Frontier mislead him too, pricing the job at $42,000 to bring him the 24 Mbps service they’d promised they could provide. 

When all was said and done, Charter couldn’t provide affordable service at all. Marshall is now stuck with Frontier’s sloth-like DSL broadband speeds of 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload for all of his small business needs. These speeds fall well short of the 25 Mbps download / 4 Mbps upload the FCC defines as “broadband.” 

Marshall’s story illustrates well the problems with existing broadband services in and around the city of Sun Prairie that led citizens and city leaders to recently pass a resolution to build a municipal broadband network in some areas within the city limits. While Marshall’s address is outside the purview of Sun Prairie’s planned network buildout, the potential for future expansion of this publicly-owned network may be Marshall’s only hope for a solution to his broadband connectivity problems.

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Frontier and Charter officials told Sun Prairie city leaders in June during the network’s planning phase that their plans to build a municipal network were misguided. At that same meeting, Frontier and Charter also warned that they would likely cut jobs if the city chose to build the municipal network.

When Alderman Hariah Hutkowski asked Frontier and Charter officials if they would build a fiber-optic network so the city wouldn’t have to, the incumbents offered no response. Hutkowski called them out:

“What I see is that you will provide just enough to people to make a profit, but our community has other needs, we have demands through schools, residents streaming service, and demand is moving toward higher capacity,” Hutkowski said.

The people of Sun Prairie, a city of about 31,000 just outside of Madison, simply want reliable broadband service from an organization that will operate with basic accountability to its customers. With the private ISPs refusing to provide that service, their pleas to stop a municipal network deployment ring hollow.

Marshall's story highlights at least two problems we see repeatedly across the United States. First, there is highly inadequate or nonexistent broadband service access at non-competitive rates across the country and private ISPs see no financial incentive to help. Second, it underscores common complaints about incumbent ISPs making terrible customer service errors that suspiciously resemble predatory bait-and-switch behavior. Once again, the consumer is caught in the middle as these two problems collide with disastrous results.

USDA Broadband Funding for Rural Projects; Coops On Top

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:

Alaska

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.

Minnesota

Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million loan.

Northeast Service Cooperative will receive two $3 million grants and, through a partnership with the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, provide broadband service on the the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Montana

Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will upgrade their system with fiber through a $29.95 million loan.

Oklahoma

@Link Services will receive $1.5 million in grants to provide broadband services in Seminole County.

South Carolina

FTC Communications will improves its wireless to 4G/LTE with a $12.38 million loan.

Virginia

Scott County Telephone Cooperative, with a $2.1 million grant, will provide one gigabit to 540 locations in Dickenson County to increase economic development.

Wisconsin

LaValle Telephone Cooperative will use a $7.61 million loan to deploy fiber.

It is no longer surprising to find faster, more affordable, more reliable Internet networks in rural areas served by coopertives. Minnesota's Farmers Mutual Telephone CooperativeCo-Mo Cooperative central Missouri, or Farmer's Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama are only a few we have covered. As large corporate providers fail to provide modern services, rural cooperatives have stepped up to offer services to their members and improve economic development prospects in the communities they serve.

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.

Sun Prairie Passes Resolution to Begin Initial Stage of Fiber Project

On July 21, the City Council of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin passed a resolution to fund construction on a segment of what could become a citywide, high-speed fiber optic project. Construction will take place in the city’s Smith’s Crossing subdivision, parts of Main Street, and the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District 9/St. Mary’s development area. It is slated to begin in early September and last through December 1, weather permitting, and will cost an estimated $640,000.

The mayor of Sun Prairie, Paul Esser, believes that going through with this project is the correct move for the City. He was recently quoted in the Sun Prairie Star

Moving ahead with the pilot project in Smith’s Crossing is the right way to go. I believe that as an early adopter of this technology we will have an economic development advantage which will attract companies that require this broad bandwidth.

The fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) construction at Smith’s Crossing is seen as a testing ground for a larger FTTP network construction that would extend 200 miles of fiber and have the potential to connect all of the city’s homes and businesses. Currently Sun Prairie has about 30 miles of fiber. If Sun Prairie can successfully build out this citywide network - costing an estimated $26.7 million for the whole city - it could rival that of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which began construction on its fiber-to-the-home network in 2003. Reedsburg has seen numerous economic development benefits and has created a considerable amount of community savings from lower prices.

The city of Sun Prairie initially invested in fiber optic technologies in 1999. In that year, the City built a fiber ring for the school system. Rick Wicklund, the manager of Sun Prairie Utilities, estimates the fiber ring will save the school $2 million by 2019. The fiber also runs to about 28 businesses and more than 130 Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs), according to Wicklund. Now, Sun Prairie Utilities is looking towards residential markets. 

Officials are calling the Smith’s Crossing construction a “pilot program.” They chose the location on account of its pre-existing physical infrastructure and population density. According to the Sun Prairie Star:

Wicklund said Smith’s Crossing is a good location because the neighborhood has existing ducts through the subdivision and is a dense area with positive demographics for the service: those who have dropped phone land lines and cable.

An upgrade to fiber could be exactly what Sun Prairie residents need in order to stimulate economic development and attract businesses to the city, which sits just more than 10 miles from the college town of Madison. Sun Prairie residents are currently served by incumbents Charter and Frontier - ISPs that rely on outdated technologies unable to provide the gigabit speeds that fiber can supply. Sun Prairie Utilities initially wondered if these incumbents might be willing to build a fiber optic network themselves, but they were unwilling to offer fiber optic services. City alder John Freund, speaking in 2014, indicated the incumbent’s unwillingness to make the switch to fiber:

It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city. 

Now, it appears these industry competitors are actively opposing the proposed municipal network. In early July, incumbent ISPs pitched city officials about the negatives and past failures of municipal projects. As the Star reported earlier this month:

Industry competitors spent more than 90 minutes telling city officials why it’s a bad idea, highlighting failures in other municipalities, questioning the utilities’ ability to handle operations, and even hinting, if it goes through, they’ll cut jobs in the Sun Prairie area. 

Incumbent pressure is nothing new for municipal networks, but it is more unsettling in the case of Sun Prairie, where City officials have gone out of their way to work with these companies - as we reported back in January of 2014. Incumbents often threaten to invest less if faced with a municipal network, but an increase in competition often spurs more investment, not less, as they suddenly fear losing customers that have a real choice in providers.

Wicklund believes that the pilot project would be cash positive within three years if it can achieve a 30 percent take rate. According to a feasibility study, a city-wide network would be cash flow positive by year four and net income positive by year six, assuming a 35 percent take rate across the 13,500 homes passed.

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
See video

In Reedsburg, Expansion Weighed After Muni Fiber Success - Community Broadband Bits Episode 147

The first gigabit city in Wisconsin, Reedsburg, has a municipal fiber network operated by the city-owned electric utility. This week, we talk with General Manager of the Utility Commission, Brett Schuppner. Reedsburg fiber goes back to 2003, which makes it one of the oldest FTTH networks in the nation.

Located about an hour outside of Madison, Reedsburg has seen more investment from local industrial businesses because of its fiber network. They received a broadband stimulus award to expand their network into some surrounding rural areas and are now considering how they can continue expanding the network deeper into surround Sauk County without federal assistance.

We talk about what goes into these expansion discussions - what is the dynamic when one community has a great network and the County would like it to expand?

Read all of our Reedsburg coverage here.

Read the transcript from this conversation here.

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

This show is 13 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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

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

Cap Times Weighs In on Mayoral Race, Muni Broadband, and Free Internet: We Need It!

The Madison Cap Times recently ran an editorial focusing on the surprising nature of mayoral races. We were also surprised - pleasantly so - to read the intention of the editorial board (emphasis ours):

The Capital Times will add its proposals to the mix, with a special focus on using emerging technologies to promote high-wage job creation and economic development. In particular, we'll advocate for the establishment of a municipal broadband system that can provide free high-speed Internet access to all Madisonians. 

...

Madison is a great city that does plenty of things right. But it faces major challenges, some of its own making, some imposed by reactionary state government, some dictated by our complex times. A mayoral race is the pivot point at which to discuss those challenges and the proper responses to them.

The Cap Times editorial reminds us that local decision making about connectivity is rooted in our choice of local leaders. We encourage Madison voters and all other communities facing the ballot to press candidates to address the issue of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. If your community doesn't have it, ask your candidates what they intend to do about it.

Madison's mayor Soglin has been a leader on this issue via the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he wrote and worked to adopt a resolution that called for restoring local decision-making authority to local governments.