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Rural Rio Blanco County Builds Open Access Fiber, Wireless - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 158

Rio Blanco County is a large, rural county in northwestern Colorado that has two population centers. The county has a sharp plan for building FTTH to the population centers and wireless across most of the county to improve Internet access in a region the national carriers have little interest in.

In this week's episode, we interview county IT Director Blake Mobley, who has long been involved in improving Internet access for community anchor institutions in the area. We talk about their plan and how they are financing it (enabled in part by the Department of Local Affairs in Colorado - which has helped many community networks).

We also discuss many other aspects of what it takes to create a project like this -- including building trust among local stakeholders -- and their particular open access approach and terminology for the different layers in the stack of entities involved.

Finally, Blake tells us what they believe has to happen for the project to be successful. Read their vision statement here. Read our full coverage of Rio Blanco County stories here.

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

This show is 23 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."

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.

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.

Huntington Determined to Bring Fiber to Town

Community leaders from Huntington, West Virginia, are the latest to announce they are determined to bring publicly owned infrastructure to town. The Charleston Daily Mail reported in April that Mayor Steve Williams described fiber as a "game-changer" for the city and is determined to find a way to bring it to Huntington.

From the article:

“This is something we need to have to compete at the level we expect to compete at in the city,” Williams said. “This is necessary for us to have Huntington transformed and frankly, to show that this can transform the region for the next 25 years. We intend to do this. What we have to determine is how do we use this study to define how we can get there. That’s what we’re in the midst of assessing right now.”

Huntington received a grant from the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council in 2014 that it used to conduct a feasibility study. The study estimated that the cost of a network would be approximately $25 million. The city considers the study a working document and is currently seeking out grant funding to move forward. They aim to bring gigabit Internet access to Huntington for $70 per month for residents and $100 per month for businesses.

Like many other moderately sized communities, Huntington wants to capitalize on the higher quality of life attributed to small town life coupled with a high capacity next-generation network. Huntington's population is around 50,000 but it is also part of the larger Huntington-Charleston metro area of about 365,000.

Williams said the city is looking into the feasibility of forming a public-private partnership to develop the fiber network. Williams said it would be cost-prohibitive for the city to build and manage the network itself, but a public-private partnership would allow the city to retain ownership over the fiber while letting an outside company sell the service itself.

No matter how the city decides to approach building the network, Williams said it will happen.

Video Available: Connecticut Gigabit State Event

On May 5th, Christopher participated in a panel conversation presented by the City of New Haven and the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel. Video of the event, Moving Towards A Gigabit State: Planning & Financing Municipal Ultra-High-Speed Internet Fiber Networks Through Public-Private Partnerships, is now available.

You can watch it from the Connecticut Network website. The final panel has, in order of appearance, Bill Vallee, Joanne Hovis, Christopher, Monica Webb, and Jim Baller. It begins around 3:18 and Christopher begins his presentation at 3:36. The entire video is approximately 4 hours, 30 minutes.

The event included a number of experts from the industry. From the event announcement:

A conversation on the “Nuts and Bolts” of Internet Fiber Networks targeting municipal officials and other public officials to provide information for municipalities interested in creating ultra-high-speed networks. The networks would be created via public-private partnerships through Connecticut to enable innovations in areas such as health care, education, business development and jobs creation, and public safety.

ECFiber Adds 1,000th Customer; Continues to Expand in Vermont

In April, ECFiber connected it 1,000th customer in Thetford Hill. Users at the First Congregational Church, described as the oldest meeting house in the state, have nothing but kudos for ECFiber and their new high-speed symmetrical Internet access. From the press release [PDF]:

“The service has been great so far,” said David Hooke, Chair of the Board of Trustees, “and we really appreciate that ECFiber is a community owned organization committed to bringing state of the art connectivity to rural east central Vermont. This will be a boon for the whole region.”

To celebrate the milestone, ECFiber Chairman Irv Thomae presented a special certificate to the Church.

This is just the latest accomplishment as ECFiber expands across Vermont. The consortium of 24 towns continues to obtain financing one expansion at a time. According to another press release [PDF], the community owned network just added an expansion to encompass the towns of Chelsea and Tunbridge. This will allow 80 more rural household to subscribe; more will soon be on the way:

“This is the first of several expansions we’ll be opening this summer,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich. “We’re pleased that more residents in this area are now able to enjoy the benefits of locally grown, full time, state-of-the-art real broadband.”

Read our previous coverage of EC Fiber here.

UPDATE: Today, ECFiber announced that it is now offering free bandwidth upgrades to local schools, public institutions, and libraries. The announcement, another example of a publicly owned network going the extra mile to improve the quality of life in the community, is published in VermontBiz. From the announcement:

“Thanks to our high speed infrastructure and state-funded dark fiber and grants that have helped interconnect many of our hubs, ECFiber has excess bandwidth (particularly during daytime hours) and we are pleased to be able to offer it to all these institutions, many of which operate under tight budget constraints,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich. “Although 400 Mbps is currently the fastest speed we offer, we hope to be able to continue to provide these institutions the fastest speed we offer in the future.  We hope to provide 1 Gigabit per second speeds within one year.” 

Grants are from the Vermont Department of Public Services Connectivity Initiative and will help to connect even more schools and libraries.

The Latest on Wired West Rural Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 149

Our second episode of Community Broadband Bits featured an interview with Monica Webb, Chair of the Wired West Board and Spokesperson. Three years later, we are excited to have Monica on the show again to update us on their recent progress.

As we recently noted, the state has decided to contribute significantly to the capital costs of a network connecting these rural towns and the towns are currently voting on whether to move forward.

In our discussion, we discuss Wired West and what it is like to live with very poor Internet access in 2015. You can read all of our coverage of Wired West here. Keep an eye on @Wired_West on Twitter for breaking news - 2 more communities voted to move forward with overwhelming majorities last night!

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 27 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.

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

Gilberts Voters Say No to Tax Increase for Muni

On April 7th, voters in Glberts, Illinois, chose not to raise taxes to deploy a municipal fiber network, reports the Daily Herald. According to the article, 81 percent of ballots cast voted against the proposal. Voter turnout was low, with only 682 ballots cast out of 4,002 registered voters in town.

As we reported last month, local developer Troy Mertz plans to deploy fiber to each structure in a new housing development, The Conservancy. His fiber company will also install fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. The plan was to issue General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance a publicly owned network throughout the rest of the community. The proposal would have raised taxes approximately 1.8 percent or $150 per year on properties with a market value of $250,000.

For the developer the plan will remain the same:

Mertz still plans to go ahead and connect The Conservancy's planned fiber optic network to municipal and public safety buildings plus Gilberts Elementary School, saying it was built into his development plans.

"The goal of village was always to getting fiber to our industrial areas," said Gilberts Village President Rick Zirk. "As a community, we asked the rest of the village, 'Do you want the same service and the same options that the new part of town and the industrial park?' And it seems that they don't want to pay for it."

There is a definite lesson here for any other communities considering a similar plan - educate the voters and make sure they are excited about it! From what we can tell, there was little effort to make people aware of the plan and the turnout for the vote suggests that no one was particularly excited to make it happen.

Lafayette Considers Expansion, One Nearby Town Strikes Itself From List

We have long applauded communities that have built their own fiber networks and then elect to expand them to neighboring communities. In Louisiana for example, Lafayette could hoard its network, forcing people that want the best connectivity in the region to move within its borders. But instead, it is preparing to expand the network.

City-Parish President Joey Durel announced that the municipal network would begin expanding beyond Lafayette city limits. An article in The Advocate quoted Durel:

“As I have traveled this parish, one of the most common things I am asked is, ‘When will we get fiber?’ That answer depended in large part on making fiber successful in Lafayette. We’re there,” Durel told the crowd that filled the Cajundome Convention Center.

Durel noted that municipalities that make agreements with Lafayette based on future annexation will be considered if they are willing to pay for the cost of expansion in their communities. Youngsville is reported to be the first town be consider Lafayette's proposal for bringing better local residential and business connectivity.

Any expansion of municipal networks has to answer some of the same important questions of any partnerships - how to allocate risk and benefits. It doesn't seem appropriate for Lafayette to assume the full risk of expanding the network to Youngsville, for example. Those who receive the benefits should assume some risk, and those who assume risk should be compensated in some measure.

One community, Broussard, is balking. Apparently, the town of 6,800 people located just outside Lafayette city limits does not want to contribute to the cost of fiber in their community, reports The Advocate. Understanding these fights from afar is always challenging because neighboring communities have often developed animosity over decades from both real and imagined slights.

Broussard has taken a hard line:

“There is no way we are going to give LUS the money to extend their fiber lines in Broussard for them to profit off of our infrastructure and the business of our citizens,” Broussard Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Johnnie Foco said in a statement…

Seeing such strong statements, we are forced to recall the extremes Cox Cable has gone to in an effort to thwart potential competition in the past. We don't know the terms LUS is offering, though we hope to update our reporting on this in coming days. What we do know is that expanding the LUS Fiber network will require a significant capital cost and risk. If Broussard doesn't want to contribute it all, it should get used to its Cox monopoly. 

Small Illinois Town Will Vote On Fiber Investment in April

The Village of Gilberts, Illinois, will ask voters in April to authorize up to $5 million in General Obligation bonds to deploy a FTTH network reports the Daily Herald. GO bonds are rarely used for network deployment but often used for public works projects and other publicly owned assets. Due to the funding mechanism in Gilberts, the network would be publicly owned.

"It's something that is not readily available in other communities," Village Administrator Ray Keller said. "It would set us apart and put us on a path to better meet the needs of our residents and businesses as their demands and needs for technology grows."

The community, home to 6,800 people, has experienced rapid population growth since 2000. At that time only 1,200 people lived in this northeast Kane County village.

According to the article and January Board of Trustee minutes [PDF online], the bond issue would increase property taxes 1.8 percent on most tax bills. Properties with a market value of $250,000, which is most common in Gilberts, would pay an additional $150 per year or $12.50 per month to fund the infrastructure deployment. There are approximately 2,400 taxable properties in Gilbert today but as more properties are built, each property owner's share would decrease. 

This is the second time the village has planned for a fiber network to improve connectivity throughout the community. In 2013, Gilberts entered into an agreement with i3, a British company that eventually folded, to deploy fiber using sewers as conduit. In that plan, i3 would have owned the fiber network.

Developer Troy Mertz is spearheading the project. His company is investing in a new housing development that will eventually include an additional 985 new homes. As part of that development and independent of the municipal fiber project, Mertz is installing fiber to each structure at his own expense. His company, iFiber Networks will also run fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. According to the Daily Herald, iFiber is not charging the city for bringing fiber to its facilities or the school.

Mertz said it's hard to quantify how much additional money he's spending on granting access to village buildings and the elementary school, but it's something he's doing because it will benefit everyone, he said.

"It's a mutual success type of thing," he said. "I hope that by bringing these services into the village, it benefits not just my community but the community as a whole."

The housing development, called The Conservancy, was originally conceived prior to 2007 but the original developer filed for bankruptcy before the project could get off the ground. There is already some street infrastructure in place and the proximity to the elementary school makes the location attractive, says Mertz. Adding fiber to the new homes will make them more attractive and, according to a 2014 FTTH Council study, increases the value of propoerties up to $5,000.

In order to reduce the cost of the deployment, the Gilberts network will piggyback the iFiber network along the iFiber route.

Using GO Bonds will keep the interest rate down because the community pledges its full faith and credit to pay back the investors, resulting in very little risk. A benefit of tying the bonds to property taxes is that the investment increases the property value. Thus, if a homeowner moves out of town, the cost of paying back the bonds stick with the property that was improved with the network, not the homeowner him or herself. 

On the other hand, incumbent cable companies will often argue that this allows local governments to borrow at lower cost than the private sector providers can. Whether or not this is even true is hard to say give the incredible cash flow of these de facto monopolies that raise prices on an annual basis. Additionally, the benefits of having built the original cable networks as part of a government sanctioned monopoly are hard to quantify, so there is little reason to suggest that using GO bonds is actually unfair when compared to the many advantages of entrenched incumbent providers.

The referendum is set for April 7th.