In Rural Idaho, Co-op Delivers the Fiber

Co-op subscribers in Challis, Idaho are set to see faster speeds as Custer Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (CTCI) gained permission from city officials to install fiber-optic cable to local homes. With the member-owned telecommunications cooperative expanding its fiber optic network throughout Custer and Lemhi Counties, local residents will benefit from a future-proof network that promises higher speeds and low prices. 

How Did We Get Here?

The rural towns on the eastern side of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range are remote, sparsely populated, and mountainous - all factors which scare away investment from large Internet service providers (ISPs). Yet, they will witness construction of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, something that even their urban counterparts rarely see. CTCI, which has been delivering telecommunications services to the community since 1955, will provide 1,253 co-op members in Custer County and Lemhi County with high-quality Internet connectivity at competitive prices.

CTCI currently provides download speeds of 6-15 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps on its aging coax-copper network. Their initial goal is to achieve 100 Mbps on a 100 percent fiber-optic network, with speeds ultimately reaching 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) (or 1,000 Mbps). The co-op’s pricing chart currently lists a 100 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload fiber connection at $279.95/month. 

Federal Funds Point in the Right Direction

CTCI receives federal funding through the Universal Service Fund (USF), an FCC program designed to improve Internet connectivity in the rural U.S. CTCI’s receives the funding for operating expenses and investments because of the cooperative's contribution to the public benefit as stated in a 2012 report to the Universal Service Administrative Corporation (USAC):

“In light of Custer's longstanding record of outstanding past service, and its plans to continue upgrading, improving, and maintaining its network for the benefit of its customers, there is no doubt that Custer's status as an ETC [Eligible Telecommunications Carrier] is consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

As a member of Syringa Networks, a consortium of 12 Idaho networks, CTCI leases special access lines to community anchor institutions like hospitals, schools, and public land managers across Idaho. Together, USF funding and access charges amount to 45 percent of annual CTCI revenue. Subscriber Internet access accounts for 12 percent of total revenue. 

Yellow Springs, OH, Releases RFP: Proposals Due August 22

Earlier this year, the grassroots group, Springs-Net, presented its white paper on a potential municipal network in their town of 3,700 people. The village, located in central Ohio between Dayton and Columbus, is taking up the suggestion and recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a broadband needs assessment and business plan.

The village already operates municipal electric, water, sewer, and storm water utilities, however does not own any municipal fiber. According to the RFP, Yellow Springs collaborates with several local schools and an educational computer association for connectivity to the village’s municipal office location. There is also fiber in the community owned by the Ohio Academic Research Network (OARNet) and a non-profit datacenter in the area.

Yellow Springs wants interested firms to answer their call and provide options for:

  • Mapping Needs Assessment
  • Business and Financial Model
  • Governance and Ownership Strategy
  • Funding and Financial Analysis
  • Public-Private Partnership Development
  • Infrastructure Recommendations

There will be an informal session for respondents on August 1 at 11 a.m. in the Yellow Springs Council Chambers and proposals are due on August 22, 2016. Check out the Yellow Springs website for more details on the RFP.

Why a Gig? The Video Response You've Been Waiting For!

With the increasing number of gigabit cities, a trend led by local governments, Google, and some cutting edge small ISPs, some are confused why a gigabit is important now when most applications do not need that much bandwidth to operate. We get this question frequently and decided to make a short video explainer for why a making a gigabit available to everyone is a smart goal. 

Please share widely!

 

Santa Clarita Leases Dark Fiber For Better Connectivity And Revenue

Santa Clarita, a community of 220,000 in Los Angeles County, California, recently signed a dark fiber lease agreement with Southern Californian telecommunications provider Wilcon. The city hopes to improve high-speed Internet access for local businesses; this ten-year contract allows Wilcon to provide services via publicly owned fiber-optic cable originally buried for traffic controls. 

The New Agreement

From the City Council’s June 28th agenda, the new agreement includes the following:

  • Initial anticipated annual revenues of $72,256 based on $840 per year per fiber mile.
  • Annual fiber lease rate adjustment based on [Consumer Price Index] (CPI) for the Los Angeles area.
  • Initial anticipated lease of 86.02 total fiber miles.
  • City maintains control and ownership of all fiber at all times.
  • Lease of dark fiber is not exclusive to Wilcon.
  • City may opt out of the contract without cause after ten (10) years.

Santa Clarita and Wilcon can extend their agreement on identical terms for three consecutive periods of five years following the original ten-year term, leading to a potential contract length of twenty-five years. 

Using Existing Assets To Promote Business Connectivity

The third largest city in Los Angeles County is home to the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, a handful of aerospace engineering firms, several medical equipment manufacturers, and a strong business community. Yet, local industry groups like Santa Clarita Business Journal (SCBJ) identified unaffordable Internet access as a major barrier for local businesses, as highlighted by its May 2015 publication

The City Council recently published its 2020 Goals, which include two Internet-specific objectives:

  • Work with the Economic Development Council (EDC) to provide recommendations and strategies on how to ensure high-speed Internet access to business parks.
  • Establish a revenue-generating program that utilizes existing infrastructure to leverage resources and potentially promote greater bandwidth access to the community. 

The lease agreement with Wilcon will move Santa Clarita toward achieving those goals. Although the lease will connect several business parks and individual businesses already located on the existing network, it will open the door for Wilcon or another Internet service provider (ISP) to expand the network to serve even more Santa Clarita businesses. 

Crosstown Traffic Lends a Hand

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As communities like Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kane County, Illinois, have shown, extra fiber cables already laid for traffic controls can act as the foundation for better local Internet access. We’ve also written about the city of Aurora, Illinois, received a $12 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to construct 60 traffic signals. The city has now extended its network to schools, businesses, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. 

Santa Clarita initially laid 96 strands of fiber to manage traffic signals and cameras starting in 2002, planning ahead for future growth. The City shared the initial expense of the $3.4 million infrastructure project with the Metro Transit Authority. Since then, Santa Clarita has incrementally expanded the network to over 70 miles, using state and federal grants to fund the expansions. Traffic operations take up less than one-third of the network's full capacity. For about four years now, the city has eliminated the cost of leased lines by using its fiber-optic network to interconnect its municipal facilities.

Freedom Dark Fiber Networks was the first private dark fiber provider to work with the city. Freedom used the network to provide services to a number of entities, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Southern California Edison, AT&T, and Verizon. The company leased small portions of city-owned fiber on a short-term basis to fill in gaps on its network. In 2013, Wilcon acquired Freedom Dark Fiber Networks. At that point, both the city and Wilcon decided it was time to renegotiate.

Dark Fiber = Bright Future

Even with up to eight strands dedicated to Wilcon’s network, about 50 percent of the city’s fiber remains unlit. Now it finds itself with a new revenue stream estimated at more than $700,000 over the course of the next ten years, thanks to its contract with Wilcon. In addition to reducing the cost of maintaining connectivity for its municipal facilities, Santa Clarita is providing an environment where businesses can get the fast, affordable, reliable, connectivity they need.

PBS Takes A Look At Internet Cooperatives

We aren’t the only ones noticing. As rural communities take control of their connectivity by banding together to form broadband cooperatives, their efforts are getting attention. Earlier this month, PBS News Hour featured a story on the Wired West and RS Fiber Cooperatives.

Ivette Feliciano visits with local residents, business owners, and community leaders in both western Massachusetts and rural Minnesota where both initiatives are rewriting the rules for rural dwellers. She visits with Jake Reike, a farmer from Renville County; he talked with Chris during the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #198. He described for us how improving local connectivity was what his family needed to maintain their farming lifestyle.

Feliciano also sought out expert Susan Crawford, who explained why people in these sparsely populated communities need high-quality connectivity and why they refuse to wait for big providers who may never come to their rescue.

Download a copy of our report RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative, to learn the details of one Minnesota farming region is bringing better Internet access to its people and businesses. There is much to be gained by joining forces.

For more on Wired West, we recommend WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build a Fiber Optic Network, from the Berkman Center. Crawford helped author that report that dives deeper into the situation in western Massachusetts.

Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 211

Fort Collins is a thriving community of over 150,000 and the home of Colorado State University. Despite gorgeous vistas and many high tech jobs, Fort Collins basically has the same cable and DSL duopoly the majority of communities suffer from. But they are making plans for something better.

Mayor Wade Troxell joins us this week for episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to talk about their situation and planning process.

We talk about their need for better access and how they are committed to taking action even if they are not quite sure yet what it will be. They exempted themselves from the Previously-Qwest-But-Now-CenturyLink-Protection-Act that requires a referendum for the local government to introduce telecommunications competition... with 83 percent support.

We end our discussion by talking again about undergrounding utility assets - which took them many decades but is very nearly complete.

Watch a video of Mayor Troxell at the Digital Northwest - where I was moderating a panel.

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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Whip City Fiber Snaps To It: Yet Another Expansion In Westfield, MA

In the spring, Westfield, Massachusetts began to expand it’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Whip City Fiber with a build-out to three additional neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Westfield Gas + Electric announced that they will soon expand even further to three more areas.

According to Dan Howard, General Manager of the utility, the demand for the symmetrical Internet access is strong:

"Every day we hear from residents of Westfield who are anxious for high-speed Internet to be available in their neighborhood," he said. "It's a great motivator for our entire team to hear how much customers are looking forward to this new service."

Gigabit residential access is $69.95 per month; businesses pay $84.95 for the same product but also get Wi-Fi for their establishments. Installation is free. If people in the new target areas sign up before August 31st, they will get a free month of service.

Like a growing number of communities, Westfield started with a pilot project in a limited area to test the level of interest for a FTTH network in their community. They are finding a high level of interest and gaining both confidence and the knowledge to continue the incremental expansion across the community. Other towns with the same approach include Owensboro, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Holland, Michigan.

Westfield officials are asking interested residents and businesses to check out the pilot expansion page to determine if they are in the expansion area and to sign up for service. The page also explains how your Westfield neighborhood can become a fiberhood to get on the list for expansion.

For more about Whip City Fiber, listen to Chris interview Aaron Bean, Operations Manager, and Sean Fitzgerald, Customer Service Manager, from Westfield Gas + Electric. They spoke in June during episode #205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - July 19

California

Refund program to help expand broadband Internet service by Rachelle Chong and Lloyd Levine, Sacramento Bee

 

Colorado

Big choices ahead as Boulder pursues faster, cheaper broadband by Alex Burness, Boulder Daily Camera

Erie, Superior weigh municipal broadband ballot question by Anthony Hahn, Colorado Hometown Weekly

 

Massachusetts

Mount Washington gets $230K grant to deliver broadband access by Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle

The town has won a $230,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to support the construction of a fiber-to-home network that will deliver broadband access to the residents of this town. At this point, according to town officials, more than 60 percent of the residents of the smallest town in Massachusetts have committed to subscribing to the service.

 

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North Carolina

Waynesville enters agreement to expand broadband by Smoky Mountain News

Getting the Internet to everyone in WNC by Tom Vinyard, Citizen-Times

 

General

Why we need affordable broadband for anchor institutions and communities by John Windhausen Jr., Bloomberg Government & StateScoop

Bipartisan Senate group forms broadband caucus by Ben Munson, FierceTelecom

A bipartisan group of senators are joining together to launch the Senate Broadband Caucus, which will focus on broadband infrastructure and deployment and will address broadband issues affecting Americans, specifically increasing connectivity and closing the digital divide that particularly impacts rural America.

In these troubling times, senators unite to end America's big divide - rural v. urban broadband by Shaun Nichols, The Register

Problem With Poles In Connecticut: Petitioning PURA For Precision

In Connecticut, local municipalities want to take advantage of the state’s unique “Municipal Gain Space” but invoking the law has not been hassle-free. As towns try to place fiber-optic cables on this reserved section of utility poles, questions arise that need answering. 

Giving Towns Some Room On The Poles

The Connecticut statute grants state departments and municipalities the right to use space on all of the approximately 900,000 utility poles sitting in the municipal Rights-of-Way (ROW), regardless of ownership. One of the state's electric providers and either Verizon or Frontier jointly own most of the poles.

The law was created in the early 1900s for telegraph wiring and as new technologies and wire types evolved, a number of law suits ensued. Cities and state entities usually won, preserving the space, but the process of getting attachment agreements approved became more burdensome and expensive. In 2013, the state legislature amended the law so municipalities could access to the space “for any use.” The change opened the door for hanging fiber for municipal networks and partnering with private providers.

A Little Help Here...

In theory, it seems simple but in practice, pole administrators - Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) and telephone companies - and government entities need guidance. As communities across the state band together to improve local connectivity and try to use the law, they have uncovered its flaws. It has potential, but the Municipal Gain Space law needs sharpening to be an effective tool. Its application rules are not sufficiently defined and a number of technical issues are not addressed. 

The state’s Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA) has the authority and responsibility to establish rules to settle the problems with the law. Deploying a municipal network is no small task; the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) and the State Broadband Office (SBO) hope to simplify the process for local communities. They have petitioned PURA to clarify the Municipal Gain Space rules. In their formal petition, they ask PURA to investigate and remove barriers that interfere with the “timely and efficient use of Municipal Gain.” Read the petition at the PURA website.

Lack Of Direction Jeopardizes Local Projects

We spoke with Elin Swanson Katz, Consumer Counsel, and Joseph Rosenthal, Principal Attorney from the OCC. Bill Vallee, the state's Broadband Policy and Program Coordinator joined the conversation. They described how a lack of direction for pole administrators and other gaps in the Municipal Gain Space law negatively impacts deployment for municipalities that decide to employ it. From inception to implementation, communities find themselves confronting some common questions.

A city may decide to invest in a project and use the Municipal Gain Space law to determine a route for their fiber-optic network cables.  As they move forward, they find that there are a number of unresolved questions, beginning with where on the pole the Municipal Gain Space should be located. Often the other entities that are using the poles have not reserved space for a municipality’s unrestricted use.

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Once they answer the important issue of where on a pole a cable belongs, the next question is who pays to rearrange the existing wires so the new cable can be attached? For example, if a telephone company hung its wire but failed to reserve the space for the town to use later, who should pay for the make-ready costs when the town decides to use its statutory space under the Municipal Gain Space rule? How should make-ready costs, which can make or break a municipal fiber project, be allocated?

Time is critical; that holds true in the telecommunications industry in a number of ways. New rules would also establish who would be responsible for assessing the condition of the poles to expedite projects that depend on pole availability. Scheduling trucks and technicians from the various entities using the poles, fragile financing schedules, deployment delays that cause subscription losses, are only a few factors impacted by timing that affect the viability of a public or private network.

Limiting Competition With “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”

As communities have moved forward with fiber projects, some have entered into agreements with pole owners whose draft pole attachment agreements dictate the terms. Local communities may feel they have little choice, especially if they depend on critical funding tied to a tight deadline.

Some pole attachment agreements violate the law because it includes language that restricts municipalities’ use of the Municipal Gain Space. By limiting the space to “government use,” pole owners are able to prevent partnerships between municipalities and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who may wish to provide services to businesses or residents via publicly owned infrastructure. Such a restriction eliminates a range of options for local communities who may not have the ability to operate and maintain a fiber network alone. Incumbent providers are using their pole attachment agreements to stifle and delay municipal networks, including those that involve private partners, as a way to limit competition.

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Local communities must go out of their way to avoid these restrictive agreements if they want to preserve their ability to one day use their fiber for something other than a "government use."

For example, Somers had been awarded state funding to connect to the state education network but refused to sign the pole attachment agreement from Frontier. The resulting delay almost caused them to lose the state grant and they eventually engineered the network to avoid Frontier poles so they would not have to restrict away their Municipal Gain Space.

As part of the petition, the OCC and SBO are asking PURA to develop rules that could be used to build a standard agreement between municipalities and the telecommunications companies or EDCs that own the poles.

Washing Away The Mud For Everyone

In their June 21st news release, the OCC emphasized that the Municipal Gain Space rules affect a number of entities:

Other interested stakeholders in a PURA proceeding regarding the municipal gain would likely include the Single Pole Administrators (the two Electric Distribution Companies), the incumbent telephone companies, the several cable operators, long-term infrastructure investors, the diverse set of utilities, municipalities, investors, other entities that already engage in pole attachments, and Connecticut business and technology promotion groups seeking high-speed internet access.

"The process is daunting and in some circumstances clear as mud...That whole process needs to be clarified," Katz told the Hartford Courant in June. If PURA agrees, the Municipal Gain Space may soon be sharpened and ready to break new ground for Connecticut communities.

Broadband Communities Magazine Spotlights Study on Rural Electric Cooperatives

In the 1930s, rural communities joined together through electric cooperatives to bring electricity to their homes and businesses. Today, rural electric co-ops may have the power to bring Internet access to these same communities.

A recent Broadband Communities Magazine article highlights this potential for rural electric co-ops. In the article, Dr. Robert Yadon and D. Bracken Ross of the Digital Policy Institute at Ball State University explain the results of their recent study. 

Electric Co-Ops as Regional Networks

Yadon and Bracken looked into 30 private sector Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) providers in Indiana and 16 rural electric co-ops providing Internet service around the nation. After predicting engineering costs, the researchers highlighted a dozen Indiana rural electric co-ops that could serve as regional hubs of connectivity.

The researchers developed a specific process for rural electric co-ops interested in providing Internet access. In summary, they propose:

“For REMCs [Rural Electric Membership Cooperatives], the process begins with a commitment to a middle-mile, smart grid fiber deployment connecting their substations, followed by a phased-approach business model with strategic growth focusing on last-mile customer density. Exploring local business partnership underwriting opportunities, examining the use of an efficient regional network design and combining multiple federal funding programs are the keys to rural broadband deployment success down the road.”

We don’t necessarily agree with these proposals. Our Christopher Mitchell has written many times about how middle mile cannot solve the last mile problems. The incremental approach based on customer density can repeat some of the same problems we’ve seen with cable and telephone companies - skipping over the most rural and smallest localities. Relying on federal funds is not always necessary. In fact, the researchers point to the success of a co-op that continued on after being denied a federal grant.

Pioneering Electric Co-Ops are Models

Yadon and Bracken pointed to the incremental approach taken by several rural electric co-ops, particularly Co-Mo Electric. The researchers noted how Co-Mo Electric was able to build out the network overtime to the rest of their electric service area. 

Co-Mo Connect, part of Co-Mo Electric, provides some of the fastest Internet service in the nation to rural Missouri. On MuniNetworks.org, we've covered Co-Mo Connect’s journey to connectivity. After being denied a federal stimulus grant, in 2012 the co-op forged ahead and built a next-generation network. Chris spoke with the previous General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, Randy Klindt, in Community Broadband Bits Episode 140. Klindt now works for Ozarks Electric Cooperative as they deveop their own FTTH project. 

Local Entities With Vision

Although Yadon and Bracken’s recommendations are not quite spot on, one of their final statements is compelling:

“Only those local entities with a vision and a local, vested interest in providing a long-term solution for ubiquitous broadband service to rural areas will succeed.”

Rural electric cooperatives need to be focused on the future of the community. The recent ILSR report, “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative,” from our co-workers in the Energy Democracy Initiative underscores how rural electric cooperatives have so much potential if they only engage and activate their memberships. Rural areas need to part of the new economies (from renewable energy to telecommuting), and rural electric cooperatives need to realize their potential.