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CNS Expanding Fiber in Rural Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Network Services (CNS) Brings STEM Education and More to Rural Southwest Georgia

“With agriculture being the number one industry in the state, we are looking to inspire students to learn globally and live and produce locally. Agriculture and STEM education are a natural fit. With GPS-guided equipment and variable-rate irrigation and fertilizer applicators to better manage natural resources, education is key." These are the words of Beau Sherman, Regional Distant Learning and Video Coordinator for Education serving schools connected by Community Network Services (CNS) in Georgia.

CNS was formed in 1997 when several towns in rural southwest Georgia got together to form a public telecom utility. They started by connecting local schools and libraries with a fiber broadband network. While CNS has since grown into a full-service telecommunications provider - offering phone, video and internet access to business and residential customers - its impact on local education is a shining example of how community broadband networks can improve local education. CNS now serves 65 schools across 3,278 rural square miles including the cities of Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Pelham and Thomasville.

To help realize the network’s full educational potential, the school districts served by CNS teamed up to hire Beau Sherman. Mr. Sherman had long been a strong advocate for pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in rural southwest Georgia. So he was the perfect fit for the role of helping the schools harness their new state-of-the-art broadband network.

One way Mr. Sherman is leveraging CNS’s high-speed fiber network is bringing live interactive science demonstrations into classrooms via Georgia Tech’s Direct 2 Discovery (D2D) program. With CNS and D2D, students in rural southwest Georgia enjoy live interactions with research scientists demonstrating principles of science in fields including astronomy, high-energy physics and nanotechnology. Students see in HD exactly what the scientists see and can ask questions as if they were all in the same room. Having worked with schools lacking high-speed fiber connectivity, Sherman attests that these two-way HD interactions would not be possible for his students without CNS’s fiber network.

Another way CNS is enabling new educational opportunities is by offering telepresence capabilities to a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program set to launch at Mitchell County High School in Camilla, Georgia. Telepresence will allow students to complete their practicum requirements with supervising instructors who cannot physically be in Camilla. Due to low numbers of medical professionals in rural areas, it is difficult to provide consistent supervision for medical training programs. But thanks to CNS’s high-speed fiber network, medical supervisors can be much more efficient with their time - treating patients in one town while training nursing students in another, without hours of driving in between.

Thanks to CNS and Beau Sherman, students in some of Georgia’s most rural stretches are enjoying high-tech educational opportunities available only through advanced broadband networks. And as we see time and time again, municipalities are very well suited to solve these problems locally with their own investments at a far lower cost than they would pay to lease inferior services.

Georgia Anti-Internet Bill Hearing Rescheduled for Next Week

In the 30 hours since we learned of a bill in Georgia to revoke local authority to decide for themselves if a broadband network is a wise investment, we have seen a big response! Some of that is detailed below, but what matters for now is that HB 282 was bumped from today to next week.

The committee roster is here, please keep spreading the word and making phone calls. If you have contacts in Georgia that want more detail, send them our way.

The Georgia Municipal Association Blog quickly explained why this bill limits the ability of towns to attract jobs to their communities.

The fundamental question is rather simple, does Georgia want local leaders to determine the economic and investment strategies for their communities or do we want those decisions to be made solely on the business plan of companies based outside of the state?

And they go on to quote the former City Manager of Adel:

After much deliberation and public demand, the City of Adel launched our wireless internet system, Southlink, in 2003. There were NO INCUMBENT, HIGH-SPEED PROVIDERS at that time with no indication of interest by anyone. The City of Adel did what no investor-owned company would consider, yet the citizens and businesses in Adel deserved the service just as much as those citizens of Atlanta, Macon, Augusta or Savannah. The business plan worked and we gained customers. Within four years of our launch, both Alltel and Mediacom launched true high-speed service to the area. With our original intent served, we then dismantled the wireless system in 2009 and 2010 and the citizens had service options.

We did not launch the service to compete with incumbent providers and we gave them every chance to provide the service. Did our positive action create the impetus for other providers to bring in their service? I will let you decide that.

And finally, the video below notes how the city of Thomasville benefited from building its own network.

Karl Bode, of DSL Reports, sounds off on this attempt to restrict competition:

As is usually the case, the industry argues that it's simply unfair for them to have to compete with government, yet the reality is they're using government to ensure they never have to compete with towns -- or anybody else. If Windstream and AT&T were providing adequate service in Georgia, towns and cities in the state wouldn't be attempting the very difficult task of trying to wire themselves.

We have seen these attempts before. Recall that Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink spent more than $1 million over many years in North Carolina to limit competition -- something we documented in a recent report. Since passing that bill, North Carolina has seen its broadband prices rise and investment in rural areas remain stagnant.

Video: 
See video

CNS In Southern Georgia Brings Communities Together

Step across the county line in Thomas County, Georgia and you will be in Florida. Its county seat, Thomasville, has been chosen as a one of the best places to retire. Thomasville's website is filled with pics of grand white pillared porches, rose gardens, and long winding paths lined with graceful oaks. It strikes me as a place to sit, sip a mint julep, and enjoy a passing breeze.

Appearances can be deceiving. Thomasville has been keeping up with the times by enhancing their fiber optic capabilities since 1995. While their project began as city investment, they are now part of a community network that serves several other local municipalities spanning several counties. The network brought services to an area the private providers had neglected.

The network began by connecting local schools, hospitals, and businesses, but quickly attracted residential subscribers. Within two years, neighboring Cairo (Grady County), Camilla (Mitchell County), and Moultrie (Colquitt County) joined Thomasville to create the collaborative development authority, now sometimes referred to as the South Georgia Governmental Services Authority. The purpose of the Authority was to expand Community Network Services (CNS) to reach more of the region in more ways. While each town benefits from connecting to the other three, they all maintain their own network as part of the CNS system. A few smaller towns in the area are also part of the network.

Past press releases record many instances of community, success, and positive use of their network. From the very beginning of CNS, it was apparent that the local leaders knew the community needed to act for itself. These words, spoken in 1997, have been echoed many times by the founders of municipal networks:

"Rural Georgia has been bypassed by technology for a long time," said Thomasville City Manager Tom Berry. "If we want economic development to occur here, we have to make sure the technology those businesses need is available."

A press release in 2001 described the local celebration as the first cable customers were hooked up to service in Moultrie. Clearly, the sense of community pride prevailed:

"I think the beauty of this thing is it's community owned," City Manager Tony Rojas said Tuesday. "I think we need to remember that's exactly why the city council went forward in issuing bonds and developing this latest technology or infrastructure for telecommunications was because the private sector was not providing that level of service our citizens are deserving of. Basically, because we're rural Georgia, they did not want to make that investment."

Over in Cairo, the enthusiasm for the network was apparent. In February, 2002:

CNS Cairo is proud to announce Ralphine Glenn and her daughter, Ja-Reese Miller, as the 1,000th CNS customers. The ongoing increase in the CNS customer base has not only benefited the community but the City as well. According to [City Manager Robert] Hopkins, "We are delighted at the way the community has supported CNS by becoming customers and giving us a vote of confidence in this new service." Currently, the City of Cairo is averaging at least 40 new customers a week.

In addition to connecting the local schools via fiber, CNS and its member communities have used the network for interactive distance learning to promote the importance of voting. CNS also teamed up with the Freedom Calls Foundation to offer free videoconferencing between service members in Iraq and their Georgia loved ones. There was even a time when a local high school teacher taught from home via videoconferencing while her injured leg healed.

Since its inception in 1997, CNS has continued to upgrade with a combination of fiber, digital cable television, telephone service, and wireless service. Through time, they have continued to improve the network offerings to the public. Currently, CNS is upgrading to improve it's reliability, increase bandwidth, and improve signal strength.