Glenwood Springs Shares Lessons Learned - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 206

Last week, while at my favorite regional broadband conference - Mountain Connect, I was asked to moderate a panel on municipal fiber projects in Colorado. You can watch it via the periscope video stream that was recorded. It was an excellent panel and led to this week's podcast, a discussion with Glenwood Springs Information Systems Director Bob Farmer.

Bob runs the Glenwood Springs Community Broadband Network, which has been operating for more than 10 years. It started with some fiber to anchor institutions and local businesses and a wireless overlay for residential access. Though the network started by offering open access, the city now provides services directly. We discuss the lessons learned.

Bob also discusses what cities should look for in people when staffing up for a community network project and some considerations when deciding who oversees the network. Finally, he shares some of the successes the network has had and what continues to inspire him after so many years of running the network.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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This show is 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Kane County's Fiber Is Open For Business In Illinois

Kane County, Illinois, is hoping its fiber-optic network will attract more businesses looking for better connectivity. As it turns out, they've had the resources for some time but are now making more of an effort to market the benefits of their publicly owned network.

Sharing The Savings, Services, Speeds

In 2011, reports the Chicago Tribune, the county took advantage of road reconstruction and in a coordinated effort, Kane County and the Kane County Department of Transportation deployed fiber along one of its main thoroughfares, Randall Road. Since then, the county has expanded the network to approximately 47 miles, connecting county facilities in five area cities. Kane County contributed $1.5 million to the construction of the underground network that now offers 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) capacity.

Since eliminating leased lines, institutions and facilities connected to the network have reported better performance, improved services, and significant savings. For example, Geneva School District 304 needed higher capacity to comply with new state requirements:

The district was paying $9.15 per megabyte for 500 megabytes, which amounted to $54,900 a month, he said.

The district was able get 1,000 megabytes for $24,000 per year through a provider on Kane County's fiber optic network — receiving double the service at half the cost, he said. [emphasis ours]

"From our perspective, it was a win-win," [County CIO Roger] Fahnestock said. "The reseller is working with them and are able to work with them and get this off the ground and get the school district what they needed."

The County hopes to draw in more economic development and increase competition. There are already several companies that take advantage of existing fiber to offer varying services, including connectivity for academic research, colocation and cloud storage, healthcare, and at least one provider that uses the network to provide backhaul in order to offer fixed wireless Internet access to residents and businesses. 

In order to promote the network, the county recently launched a new website that allows interested entities a way to find information.

The Aurora Neighbor

Kane County’s fiber connects with the OnLight Aurora network. Much like the Kane County network, Aurora’s fiber deployment served a dual purpose - better connectivity and traffic control. In Aurora, the city had deployed some fiber on their own, which helped secure federal funding for traffic control. They were able to use that funding to eliminate the debt on their existing network and speed along the process of connecting more entities and upgrade the existing network.

FTTH In The Future?

None of the current partners are providing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service but in the new website’s About Us section, officials address the benefits of FTTH and acknowledge it as the gold standard. At a Kane County Leaders Summit, Chairman Chris Lauzen expressed the hopes Kane County leaders have for the network:

"We intend to light up Kane County in the most positive way."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - June 13

Colorado

A lesson in broadband projects by Dennis Webb, Grand Junction Sentinel

 

Idaho

Idaho Falls mulls expanding fiber-optic Internet connections by Sarah Glenn, Idaho State Journal

 

Tennessee

Chattanooga was a typical post-industrial city. Then it began offering municipal broadband by Peter Moskowitz, The Nation

“Really, these last two years you’ve seen it pick up steam,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “It’s just going to keep on spreading.”

Six years ago, Chattanooga was the only city offering publicly owned 1-gigabit Internet service. Today, over 50 communities do, according to ILSR, and there are over 450 communities in the United States offering some form of publicly owned Internet service. Many municipal networks are in small towns and rural areas where private high-speed access is hard to come by. But several dozen are in cities like Chattanooga, where there are other, private options that tend to be much more expensive and slower than what governments have proven they can provide.

Innovation district offers opportunity to close 'digital divide' by Gabrielle Chavalier, Chattanooga Times Free Press

 

Vermont

Souvernet's fiber network adds partners to help connect Vermont's 'Last Mile' by Vermont Biz

 

General

Why municipal broadband by Charles Cooper, The Urbanist

So, the most obvious problem that Municipal Broadband solves is that it would offer ubiquitous high speed (>25mb/sec) broadband access to every building and person in the city versus the cherry picking that current carriers are providing.

Make the Internet a priority, groups say to political parties by Patrick Dehahn, Associations Now

Bridgewater State University Connects to OpenCape

CapeNet, the local Internet service provider, on the OpenCape community network is expanding in southeastern Massachusetts. Bridgewater State University will connect to the OpenCape network for more bandwidth and more reliable Internet access.

Connectivity for Education

Bridgewater State University needed to ensure reliable connectivity for its students because many university courses have online, cloud-based, or video components. In fact, nearly every school CapeNet serves requests more bandwidth each year, reports the Bridgewater Wicked Local.

Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Bridgewater State University, Raymond V. Lefebvre, summed up the importance of connectivity for education institutions: 

“We pursued this additional Internet bandwidth in support of teaching, research, collaboration, learning and our residence students.”

More Reliable, Higher Bandwidth

The university already has connectivity through another provider, but wanted a second fiber connection to ensure redundancy. Connecting to OpenCape not only increases bandwidth, but also improves reliability. The OpenCape network traverses an entirely different route than the university’s other fiber connection. 

If the first fiber connection fails (i.e. if the cable gets damaged or equipment goes down), students’ and professors’ work will not be interrupted thanks to the connection to the OpenCape network. The second connection will keep information flowing. Alan Davis, CEO of CapeNet, explained:

“Because the OpenCape Network has virtually unlimited capacity and was designed to eliminate single points of failure, it is a valuable tool for institutions like Bridgewater State.”

According to Lefebvre, Bridgewater also appreciates CapeNet's status as a local provider dedicated to working with public entities in the region. In March, we reported on CapeNet's upgrades at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, also connected via the OpenCape fiber network.

BBC World Service Visits Chattanooga

Over the past few years, a number of media outlets have spotlighted Chattanooga’s rebirth from “dirtiest city in America” to a high-tech economic development engine. Recently, the BBC World Service produced “Chattanooga - the High Speed City” an episode in its Global Business Podcast series.

Peter Day presents the 27-minute story, described by the BBC as:

Chattanooga has been re-inventing itself for decades. In the late 1960s Walter Cronkite referred to the city as "the dirtiest in America." Since then heavy industry has declined and, to take its place, civic leaders have been on a mission to bring high-tech innovation and enterprise to Chattanooga. In 2010 the city became the first in America to enjoy gig speed internet following an investment of a couple of hundred million dollars from its publicly-owned electricity company, EPB. What economic and psychological benefits have super-fast internet brought to this mid-sized city in Tennessee? Has the investment in speed paid off? 

In the podcast, Day interviews a number of people who describe how access to the fast, affordable, reliable network offered by EPB Fiber Optics has benefitted the community. The story includes interviews with business leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and others who recount how the community’s Internet infrastructure has influenced their decision to locate in Chattanooga. The Times Free Press covered the BBC podcast in detail and reprinted an excerpt from Mayor Andy Berke:

"The city that I grew up in in the mid 1980s was dying," Berke told the BBC. "We held on to our past for too long. We're not the best at something and that's really important for a community. When you are the best, that changes how you look at things and allows you to take advantage of and utilize your resources. Chattanooga was a community that didn't have a tech community."

You can listen to the podcast on the BBC World Service Global Business website.

Another RFP: Egremont, Massachusetts

Egremont, Massachusetts, population approximately 1,000, is seeking a firm for design, engineering, and consulting services for a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. They released a Request or Proposals (RFP) in mid-May and proposal submissions are due on June 15th.

Small Town Seeks Big Connectivity

The community is one of the many rural towns located in the far western part of the state where high-quality connectivity is rare. Like Leverett, Mount Washington, and the Wired West communities, Egremont has decided the time to wait for the big providers is over.

The town is located near Mount Washington in Berkshire County and has about 950 residents and businesses and 47 miles of roads. It’s situated in a valley east of the Taconic Mountain Range and lies along the Green River. Similar to many of the other small towns in western Massachusetts, there are also a number of vacation homes in Egremont.

Egremont is seeking a firm that will develop a fast, affordable, reliable network to offer Internet access and VoIP. In their RFP, Egremont expresses a requirement that the new infrastructure connect to the state’s MassBroadband 123. For more details on what the community wants to see in proposal submissions, check out the RFP online.

Mount Washington Voters Ready To Fund Muni

With only about 150 full-time residents, it’s hard to get the big ISPs to pay attention to you, especially when you are situated in forest-covered mountains. The people of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, realize that if they want high-quality connectivity, they have to do it themselves. At a special town meeting in May, voters unanimously approved funding for a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Flying Solo In Western Mass

Earlier this year, the small community obtained legal authority to move forward on the project without establishing a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). State law requires municipalities to establish an MLP as the public entity to administer a city’s publicly owned network. Mount Washington considered it an unnecessary and burdensome requirement for such a small community; the legislature agreed. Since they decided not to join the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish MLPs, they don't need one. 

Mount Washington officials released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the spring and received seven responses. The town selected a firm to construct the network, for which they have already set aside $250,000 from the town’s stabilization fund. At the May town meeting, voters approved an additional $450,000 in borrowing and selectmen are working with a financial advisor to review options.

Selectman Brian Tobin told the Berkshire Edge that the community expects to be eligible for funding from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI); town officials are talking with the agency. The state organization announced that it will be working closely with Massachusetts towns on a case-by-case basis to disburse approximately $50 million in sate funding to improve connectivity. 

“Mount Washington Is Ready To Go”

In February, Tobin predicted that voters would support the project and he was right. At the time, he said that even those that were content with satellite Internet access appreciated the increased property value benefit of an FTTH network.

Apparently, his confidence was not misplaced. From the Berkshire Edge article:

“I feel we’re really far ahead,” Tobin said, noting the initial “take rate,” or customers who have committed to the service, is 91 out of 145 houses. He said fiber optics will run past every home in town so residents who haven’t yet signed up can be added on anytime. “We’re building it for everybody who wants it. We have a self-sustainable project here.”

“Everyone who voted [at special town meeting], voted to do this,” Tobin said. “Pretty much everyone wants to move into the 21st century and have a high speed fiber optic network. That is encouraging.”

Bristol's Muni A Boon for Electric Users

Business and residential electric customers in Bristol, Tennessee are experiencing shorter power outages thanks to recent upgrades to the city’s municipal fiber-optic network. And collectively, that represents annual savings of about $6 million for electric users, according to the CEO of the Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES):

In an opinion piece for the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper, BTES CEO Mike Browder, said a recent upgrade to the electric system, which uses the city’s fiber-optic network, has helped cut power outage time by 35 percent:

“Our goal is less than 60 minutes average outage time per year per customer. In 2015, we exceeded that goal, reducing our outage time to 34 minutes per customer.”

According to BTES' About Us page, customers who lose power can depend on the smart grid to alert the utility to any outages:

Those customers with fiber services to their homes have automatic power outage detection, meaning that they do not need to make a telephone call if their power goes out. In addition, the system provides automatic meter reading and theft detection.

Browder offered this example in his piece:

"BTES recently had an outage that caused half of The Pinnacle, including Bass Pro Shops and Belk, to lose power. Using the fiber optic system, the BTES electric system automatically opened one switch and closed three more in sequence while testing each section of line. All of The Pinnacle had service restored in less than one minute!"

Bristol’s Smart Network

Reducing outage time is among a number of benefits that Bristol's 26,000 residents and its local businesses are enjoying from the city’s municipal fiber network, which it launched in 2005. The city also uses the infrastructure for fast, reliable, affordable connectivity in the community.

Browder said BTES’s broadband division pays for most of the cost of the fiber system.

“The electric customers pay only a small portion and experience a much more reliable electric system with more than $6 million a year savings because of the fiber optic system and the way we use it. Through this system, BTES is able to read more than half of the electric meters. This system is able to detect a power outage the second it occurs. Each substation automatically reports data and problems at the speed of light, and resolves those problems — again, at the speed of light, helping to prevent many outages altogether.”

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Browder also noted that the community's fiber-optic network is used to monitor its load managed water heater program. The program monitors and manages water temperature inside customers' water heaters, switching the appliances on an off automatically to save energy. The program cuts costs to BTES and customers to the tune of $1 million per year

Other Cities Enjoy Smart Savings

Bristol is just one of a growing number of cities whose electric utilities benefit from their connection with the municipalities’ fiber usage and monitoring. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the EPB (Electric Power Board) held electric utility rates steady for four years because it was achieving considerable savings due to the municipal fiber network.

Morristown, also in Tennessee, has experienced significant savings in operational efficiencies and electricity consumption due to their fiber-optic enabled smart meter program.

You can learn more by listening to Chris's December 2012 conversation with Dr. Browder in episode #24 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Blue Ribbon Panel: The Public and Private Sectors Working Together

Like electricity in the last century, advanced communications services and capabilities can become the drivers and enablers of simultaneous progress in economic development, education, government services, digital equity, and just about everything else that matters most to our communities.

This Blue Ribbon Panel explores the challenges of establishing effective partnerships to bring better connectivity to local communities. The video is from the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, on April 5 - 7, 2016.

Moderator: Lev Gonick - CEO, OneCommunity

Panelists: 

Chris Mitchell – Director, Community Broadband Networks Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Nicol Turner-Lee – VP and Senior Research and Policy Officer, Minority Media and Telecommunications Council 

Rollie Cole – Senior Fellow, Sagamore Institute for Policy Research

Doug Kinkoph – Associate Administrator, NTIA

 

Ammon's Local Improvement District Gets City Council Blessing

Now that a judge has legally approved it, Ammon is forging ahead with an innovative approach to financing Internet infrastructure in Idaho.

On May 19th, the city council unanimously voted to create a Local Improvement District (LID). Ammon’s decision has secured a way to finance its open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Local Improvement Districts: You're In or You're Out

LIDs have been used for fiber-optic infrastructure in other places, such as New Hampshire and Poulsbo, Washington, but the approach is still not widespread. In Ammon, the city council's action creates a district from five subdivisions, where residents can “opt in” or “opt out” of participation in the FTTH network. The district includes 376 individual properties, and 188 of those property owners have expressed a desire to "opt in" to the benefits, and costs, of the network. Those who have chosen to "opt out" do not use the network, nor do they pay for deployment.

LIDs are specifically designed to take advantage of any boost to local property value -- and studies have linked FTTH with increased local property values. We’ve previously summarized the most common ways communities finance networks, but LIDs are a little different.

  1. The local community creates a “district” to issue improvement bonds. In this case, the district consists of five subdivisions of the city.
  2. Selling those improvement bonds will fund the construction of the local infrastructure project. For Ammon, that’s the open access FTTH network. 
  3. The bonds will then be paid for by an assessment on each of the properties that benefit from the network - only the households that choose to "opt in."

A Few Dollars A Month For Infrastructure

When Ammon’s IT Director, Bruce Patterson, joined the Community Broadband Bits Podcast in Episode 173, he explained Ammon's LID plan. Chris brought in real-world examples and questions of what LIDs mean for individual homeowners.

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Chris Mitchell: Basically I could opt in and then there would be, based on the number of people that are opting in and the cost, that would determine how much it would cost for me and I could either write you a check for all of it, or I could put it on my property taxes?

Bruce Patterson: That's exactly right so if you want to pay for all of it, part of it up front, you can let it be bonded for. You can go down and pay a portion of it and then it's just collected as we say through your regular assessment on your property tax until it's paid off.

Patterson estimated that monthly assessment on property taxes for those who "opt in" would probably be about $15 to $20. Only those residents who "opt in" have an assessment on their property taxes. If a resident does not want the fiber, there is no assessment on that resident’s property tax.

To connect to the Internet, residents will also need to sign up with one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offering retail services via the open access fiber network. The city will also offer a low cost, no frills, basic option that will allow those that "opt in" the ability to perform basic tasks, like check email. 

Next Steps

Now that Ammon city council has created the LID, residents in those five subdivisions will have to choose whether to “opt in” or “opt out” of the FTTH project. Individual residents must now decide if they want next-generation connectivity. With 188 of 376 individual property owners "opting in" (a take rate of about 50 percent) Ammon should soon have that last mile up and running.