Communities across America have built their own broadband networks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, and fast networks. We tell their stories and defend their authority to build these networks.
The town of Pinetops, North Carolina, has a six-month reprieve.
On October 20, the Wilson City Council voted to continue to provide telephone and Internet access to customers outside of Wilson County, which includes Pinetops, for an additional six months at no charge. As we reported earlier, the City Council had been backed into a corner by state law, which would force them to discontinue Wilson’s municipal Greenlight service, or risk losing their exemption entirely.
In August, the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the FCC decision to preempt North Carolina’s state law that prevented Greenlight from serving nearby Pinetops. When Hurricane Matthew struck Pinetops, however, the Wilson community could not fathom piling yet another burden - lack of high-quality Internet access - on the struggling rural community.
"We Cannot Imagine..."
After examining the law and reaching out to state leaders, Wilson’s elected officials chose to provide services at no charge while state legislators work to change the current harmful state law. Once again, a community that offers publicly owned connectivity proves that there is more to the venture than profit. From a Wilson press release:
"Our broadband utility has always been about bringing critical infrastructure to people, improving lives and communities,” said Grant Goings, Wilson City Manager. “We cannot imagine being forced to disconnect people and businesses that need our services. We are thankful that, in partnership with our phone service provider, we have identified a way to keep folks connected while Rep. Martin and Sen. Brown work to fix this broken State law."
The situation is not permanent, say Wilson's leaders, but it will give the community of Pinetops a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. It will also give Pinetops and Wilson the opportunity to organize local residents and businesses and to work with Sen. Brown and Rep. Martin who will pursue legislative changes in Raleigh.
Telephone and electric cooperatives are making strides in bringing high-quality connectivity to rural areas while national providers stay in the city. This week we speak with two gentlemen from rural southwest Michigan’s Midwest Energy Cooperative: President and CEO Bob Hance and Vice President of Regulatory Compliance Dave Allen.
The electric cooperative has embarked on a project to bring fiber-optic connectivity to its members within its electric distribution grid. The multi-year project will bring better functionality to electric services and high-speed Internet access to areas of the state struggling with yesterday’s technologies. Bob and Dave describe the cooperative’s commitment to it’s members and discuss the deep roots of the cooperative in the region. They also touch on how the project is already improving lives in the areas that are being served.
Bob, Dave, and Chris, also spend some time discussing the difficulties that face rural cooperatives, especially regarding federal funding and its distribution. Serving sparsely populated areas is a challenge. Federal funding is often distributed more favorably to big corporate providers that promise to deliver much slower speeds than cooperatives like Midwest Energy. Co-ops are delivering better services, and building better networks with less federal funding; they also face higher hurdles to obtain that funding.
Why do they do it? Because they are invested in the future of their communities.
A North Carolina regional tech news publication will host a program on Greenlight, the publicly owned and built fiber optic network of Wilson, North Carolina (pop. 50,000) whose gigabit Internet service has helped transform the community’s economy.
WRAL TechWire’s next Executive Exchange event titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem” will look at how Wilson built its fiber optic system, "turning the one-time tobacco town into North Carolina’s first Internet ecosystem." The event begins at 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center; broadband expert Blair Levin is scheduled to give the keynote address. Levin is former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission.
Levin has also been a guest on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, visiting us for episode #132 to discuss private vs. public ownership and episode #37 to talk about GigU.
Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program also will include a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.
Supervisor Mark Farrell on Tuesday introduced legislation requiring property owners to allow tenants in multi-unit buildings to choose their own internet service provider.
While federal law prohibits property owners and property managers from entering into exclusive agreements with service providers, ISP’s estimate that roughly 500 multi-unit buildings in The City have limits in place that effectively prevent residents from using alternate providers, according to Farrell.
One asset already planted where tobacco crops used to feed financial health is the fiber backbone owned by nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation.
That Mid-Atlantic backbone now provides “middle mile” broadband infrastructure, easing the transition into the last mile where businesses won’t come and students fall behind in a transforming technological age. Localities and businesses can branch off that backbone and connect towers to broadcast speedier service to more people.
If you want to see why broadband in the United States still stinks, your first stop should be to examine the state level protectionist laws used to stifle competition across countless markets. But despite the lobbyist stranglehold over state legislatures, we're still seeing some impressive progress when it comes to the deployment of gigabit fiber networks. Google Fiber continues to slowly but surely expand its footprint, and we're seeing the rise of numerous other piecemeal gigabit solutions, whether coming from the likes of Tucows or municipal broadband deployments in cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee.
With the release of our North Carolina report, it is important to remember that reports and maps are only as good as the underlying data. Although federal and state governments have collected information on deployment and access for several years, the accuracy and quality of that data is up for debate. Chatham County, North Carolina, wants to show the actual situation that local residents face.
“It is up to us to show areas that are unserved or underserved. We also have to deal with the fact that several state regulations and laws restrict what counties can do to promote more broadband options in those areas.”
The federal data is based around Form 477. Internet service providers (ISPs) submit to the Federal Communications Commission what their maximum advertised download and upload speeds are for each census block. This form, however, does not include information around pricing.
Although a census block may have high-speed Internet access, it may be unaffordable and it may only be available to one or two houses in that census block. According to the North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, only 16 percent of North Carolina's population subscribe to broadband speeds, defined by the FCC as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, despite 93 percent of the state ostensibly having access to such speeds.
How accurate is North Carolina's assessment of the data, however? Listen to our discussion about form 477 and the real situation in the state in episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Chatham County hopes residents will provide a more accurate picture of what is available by sharing their real world situation rather than depending on ISPs for data.
If you live in Chatham County, North Carolina, we encourage you to take part in this survey.
The city of Ammon, Idaho, continues to garner more recognition and opportunities from its unfolding municipal fiber network.
In a recent news release, Ammon officials announced the city received approximately $600,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to partner with the University of Utah. They will research and develop a series of next-generation networking technologies supporting public safety.
Called SafeEdge, the nearly initiative will give Ammon residents connected to the city's network the opportunity to participate in the initiative to develop applications such as broadband public emergency alerts.
Ammon officials said a major focus of the research will be to evaluate the “feasibility of mixing public safety applications with other applications and services,” such as consumer streaming and data sharing, remote classroom access, and dynamic access to judicial functions, including remote arraignments and access to legal representation.
The city added “It is expected that this open access/multiservice approach will improve the economic feasibility of deploying broadband services in small and rural communities by allowing a variety of services to be deployed across the same infrastructure, while at the same time ensuring that public safety applications can function in this environment.”
The National Science Foundation and US Ignite, an initiative promoting U.S. leadership in developing and implementing next-generation gigabit applications that can be used for social good, are providing nearly $600,000 in funding over a three-year period for the Ammon project. About $235,000 of that funding will go to Ammon as sub awardee, the city said. The project period runs from Oct. 1, 2016 to September 30, 2019.
The NSF grant to Ammon is the latest honor for the city’s municipal fiber network activities. In mid-2015, the city won first place in the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Ultra-High Speed Apps competition, which encouraged software developers and public safety professionals to use public data and ultra-high speed systems to create apps to improve criminal justice and public safety operations. We reported that Ammon’s application used gunshot detection hardware and a school’s existing camera system. The School Emergency Screencast Application provides the location of gunshot fire for first responders and transmits live-video and geospatial information so they know what to expect and where to concentrate efforts.
“A reliable high speed Wi-Fi connection on the Downtown Transit Center platform will improve the customer experience, allowing passengers to use their wait time more effectively as they work, connect with friends, or download an e-book to enjoy on the ride.”
Burlington Telecom general manager Stephen Barraclough told Vermont Business:
“The opening of the new Downtown Transit Center is a much needed development for the many who commute to and from Burlington daily, and provides an exciting opportunity to highlight Burlington’s powerful gigabit infrastructure as an accelerator for economic, educational and community benefit.”
Burlington Telecom joins a growing list of U.S. communities that are making free high-speed Internet connectivity available at public transit stations and airports.
Free Wi-Fi At The City Gateway
In April 2015, we noted that LUS Fiber began sharing its municipal Gigabit network with travelers at the Lafayette Regional Airport in Louisiana. Free Wi-Fi is available at the airport supported by LUS Fiber, allowing guests to check email, post to social media, and browse the Internet.
"We know that businesses choose to come to Lafayette for a variety of reasons and many have cited our 100% fiber-optic network as one of those reasons,” said City-Parish President Joey Durel. "As a gateway to Lafayette, we want visitors to experience the ultra high speeds of a Gigabit Internet connection, from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave."
For the time being, the city is leasing the network, which is under temporary ownership of Blue Water LLC, a company that purchased the network as part of a deal hatched with CitiBank. The financial giant had sued the city for $33 million after cover-ups from a past mayoral administration cast the network into financial chaos. That agreement requires the city to find a permanent owner for the network and finalize the sale by January 2019. If the city does not find a permanent buyer of their liking, Blue Water can choose the next owner; locals fear it may be a company like Comcast.
The new Wi-Fi will give commuters a chance to taste the high-quality Internet access that Burlington residents and businesses are trying to keep under local control. The network's ownership is uncertain, but the local initiative is doing all it can to keep it from becoming just another big, faceless, unresponsive ISP.
A few of us from the Community Broadband Networks Initiative recently attended the BBC Community Toolkit Program & Economic Development conference in downtown Minneapolis. On the first day, Gigi Sohn, Special Counselor for External Affairs for Chairman Wheeler at the FCC received the award from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice for the Local Internet Choice National Champion. The Obama administration’s FCC, under the guidance of Chairman Wheeler and the sage advice of Gigi, has become enlightened to the positive potential of community networks.
To their credit, the agency has dealt with a number of issues, including network neutrality and a number of other consumer centric matters. We have reported on some of them, but the most central to our work has been the issue of state laws that restrict the deployment and expansion of municipal Internet networks. Gigi, as one of Chairman Wheeler’s top advisors on this matter, played a pivotal role in helping the agency pursue municipal networks as a critical aid to local control, competition, and the ultimate national goal of ubiquitous Internet access.
Gigi reflected on the court battle that reversed the FCC ruling from 2015 preempting state barriers that prevent North Carolina and Tennessee municipal utility Internet networks from serving nearby communities. She noted that advocates shared truths about community networks with data about economic development, competition, and quality of life. The benefits of local authority became clear but, unfortunately, the courts showed us that this is not a battle to be fought on the federal level. The court may have agreed with the fact that municipal networks are beneficial, but they did not believe the FCC had the authority to preempt state laws, even if they are counter-productive.
In other words, in order to obtain local Internet choice, the fight has to also be local:
The battlefield is no longer the FCC and the courts, but state legislatures. And the battle plan is no longer to file convincing petitions and briefs. It is for advocates for local Internet choice to bring every local mayor, city council, business, school, college, library, chamber of commerce and citizen together to convince state officials that for the future of those cities and towns and by extension, the state itself, localities must have the ability to determine their own broadband futures.
Without a doubt, this new battlefield is much larger and the battle will be much harder, longer and more costly. But victory will be sweeter and less vulnerable to legal challenge if local stakeholders make their voices heard.
Sohn restated what Chairman Wheeler told us in August:
As he said on the day of the 6th Circuit decision: “Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice. Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.” Trust me, you’ll never get a more passionate and persuasive advocate than Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Considering The Future
Looking ahead, Sohn’s words also turned to the practical matters of the physical infrastructure of Internet networks. She urged communities to address the issue of pole attachments as quickly as possible. In addition to obtaining access to poles under the control of incumbents or utility providers, municipalities need to consider the make-ready process. “This ‘make-ready’ process is ripe for gaming by those who disfavor competition,” she observed. Certainly, the games have already commenced, as AT&T has already filed suit to delay Google Fiber deployments in Nashville and in Louisville by preventing make-ready streamlining in those cities.
Sohn left us with the message that, even though we have been through a setback in obtaining local authority, we have profited from the experience as we move the challenge to the state level. She also drew from the promise of opportunity that she sees ahead:
In closing, I’ll paraphrase just about every State of the Union address – “the state of local Internet choice is strong.” This is true despite the setback dealt by the 6th Circuit. Many challenges lay ahead, but so do many opportunities. If the past three years serve as precedent, I know that the passionate, knowledgeable and resilient advocates of this movement will overcome the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities. Let’s keep working together until every community can determine its own broadband needs without barriers. Thanks again for this wonderful honor and for all the support you have given Chairman Wheeler, the FCC and me for the past three years.
Watch the video of Gigi Sohn's speech, courtesy of Ann Treacy at the Blandin Foundation and check out their blog, Blandin on Broadband:
Time to celebrate the work of rural cooperatives that bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses forgotten by national corporate providers. October is National Cooperative Month! Let’s celebrate some of the accomplishments of those cooperatives providing next-generation connectivity.
We pulled together a list of cooperatives who were actively advertising residential access to a Gigabit (1,000 Mbps) at the end of 2015. These cooperatives rang in 2016 with Gigabit speeds, inspiring others to improve rural connectivity throughout the U.S.
To assemble the list, we used Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Form 477 data from December 2015 to find all the providers advertising a residential Gigabit download speed. This generated a list of about 200 providers. Those providers were then manually sorted into “cooperative” or “not cooperative” based on publicly available information. If you would like to make a correction or suggestion concerning this list, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
2015’s Gigabit Cooperatives
Ace Telephone Association, also known as Ace Communications or AcenTek, in Minnesota
Adams Telephone Cooperative in Illinois
Albany Mutual Telephone Association in Minnesota
Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation (ATMC) in North Carolina
Ben Lomand in Tennessee
Breda Telephone, also known as Western Iowa Networks, in Iowa
Canby Telephone Association in Oregon
Chequamegon Communications Cooperative, also known as Norvado, in Wisconsin
Clay County Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Endeavor, in Indiana
Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri
Cochrane Cooperative Telephone Company in Wisconsin
Danville Mutual Telephone Company in Iowa
Dickey Rural Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
ENMR Telephone Cooperative, also known as Plateau, in New Mexico
Gervais Telephone Company, also known as DataVision Cooperative, in Oregon
Farmers Cooperative Telephone Company in Iowa
Farmers Mutual Telephone Company in Iowa
Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama
Farmers Telephone Cooperative in South Carolina
Garden Valley Telephone in Minnesota
Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association in Minnesota
Guadalupe Valley Telephone Cooperative in Texas
Halstad Telephone Company in North Dakota
NineStar Connect in Indiana
Hill Country Telephone Cooperative in Texas
Kingdom Telephone Company in Missouri
LaValle Telephone Cooperative in Wisconsin
Lavaca Telephone Company, also known as Pinnacle, in Arkansas
Matanuska Telephone Association in Alaska
McDonough Telephone Cooperative in Illinois
Midwest Energy Cooperative, also known as Midwest Connections, in Michigan
Molalla Communications Company in Oregon
Nemont Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
North Central Telephone Cooperative in Kentucky
North Dakota Telephone Company in North Dakota
North Georgia Network in Georgia
Northwest Communications Cooperative in North Dakota
Paul Bunyan Rural Telephone Cooperative in Minnesota
Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Kentucky
Peoples Telecommunications in Kansas
Phillips County Telephone Company in Colorado
Pineland Telephone Cooperative in Georgia
Polar Communication Mutual Aid Corporation in North Dakota
Red River Rural Telephone Association in North Dakota
Reservation Telephone Cooperative in North Dakota
Richland-Grant Telephone Cooperative in Wisconsin
Roosevelt County Rural Telephone Cooperative, also known as Yucca Telecom, in New Mexico
RS Fiber Cooperative in Minnesota
Rural Telephone Service, also known as Nex-Tech, in Kansas
Santel Communications Cooperative, also known as Mitchell Telecom, in South Dakota
Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative, also known as Sho-Me Technologies, in Missouri
Skyline Telephone Membership Corporation in North Carolina
South Central Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Kentucky
South Central Utah Telephone Association in Utah
Springville Cooperative Telephone Association in Iowa
Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative Corporation in Tennessee
UBTA-UBET Communications, also known as Strata Networks, in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming
United Electric Cooperative, also known as United Services, in Missouri
UTMA, also known as United Communications and Turtle Mountain Communications, in North Dakota
Valley Telephone Cooperative in Texas
Venture Communications Cooperative in South Dakota
Western Telephone Company in South Dakota
West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative in South Carolina
West Central Telephone in Minnesota
West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative in Kentucky
West Wisconsin Telcom Cooperative in Wisconsin
Wilkes Telecommunications in North Carolina
Smart Rural Communities
The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA - the Rural Broadband Association) has also created the Smart Rural Communities Program to recognize the achievements of cooperatives taking on high-speed connectivity projects. The program includes a Gig-certification process. Even if a cooperative does not advertise a Gigabit (which means they won’t appear on our list), the cooperative still has the ability to provide Gigabit connectivity. Check out the NTCA map of those cooperatives at SmartRuralCommunity.com.
2016’s Growing Gigabit Cooperatives
A number of other cooperatives have recently moved forward with Gigabit community projects. Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC), the telephone cooperative out of Brainerd, Minnesota, launched its Gigabit speed tier this year. This summer, the Custer Telephone Cooperative in rural Idaho announced a new fiber project. The cooperative’s current goal is to offers speeds of 100 Mbps, and eventually a Gigabit Internet access speeds. Other cooperatives are in the early stages of their fiber projects, such as Duck River Electric in Tennessee. The number of cooperatives taking on these projects continues to grow.
An increasing number of cooperatives are recognizing that high-speed Internet access is necessary to keep the rural U.S. competitive. Cooperatives are a community-owned, local solution to connectivity problems. You can learn about how telephone and electric cooperatives are leading the charge to bring high-quality Internet access to rural regions in North Carolina in our most recent report. Download a copy of North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Rio Blanco County, Colorado, is moving along nicely with its Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) infrastructure investment. Readers will recall that two years ago, voters in the mostly rural county in the northwest corner of the state reclaimed local authority and soon after the community commenced plans to improve connectivity.
In a recent interview of KDNK’s Geekspeak, Rio Blanco County’s IT Director Blake Mobley described details of the project as it moves forward. He also describes how people in the county are hungry for better Internet access. The guys touch on local control and how several other communities in Colorado are voting on the right to make their own telecommunications decisions this election season. From the show website:
On this year’s ballot, voters in Carbondale, Silt, Parachute and Garfield County will decide whether or not to opt out of restrictions on local government control over high speed Internet. Blake Mobley is IT Director for Rio Blanco County. Blake talks with Matt McBrayer and Gavin Dahl about Rio Blanco’s own ballot initiative, and the county’s decision to invest in infrastructure that is now delivering gigabit fiber to homes and businesses in Rangely and Meeker.
Christopher also interviewed Blake back in 2015 for episode #158 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Where we can have a free market, we should have a free market. That is one of the main reasons I support UTOPIA, because it allows competitive access on those lines. I know it is only one line, but it makes sense to only have one line. And if I only have one line, I would rather it be my local government owning it – it is a lot easier to get a hold of the mayor of Murray than it is the CEO of Qwest when I have a problem.