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.

Whip City Fiber Expanding - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 205

Last month we wrote wrote about the Whip City Fiber Pilot project in Westfield, Massachusetts expanding and this week we interview two people from Westfield Gas & Electric about the effort. Aaron Bean is the Operations Manager and Sean Fitzgerald is the Key Accounts and Customer Service Manager.

We discuss their pilot project, how they structured the services and pricing, and integrated the new telecommunications services into the municipal utility.

We also discuss whether the lack of a television option is limiting interest from potential subscribers and how they are picking the next locations to expand the network.

The sound effect we use in the intro is licensed using creative commons. We found it here.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 18 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

The Tacoma Click Saga of 2015: Part 2

This is Part 2 in a four part series about the Click network in Tacoma, Washington, where city leaders spent most of 2015 considering a plan to lease out all operations of this municipal network to a private company. Part 2 explores the major reasons why Tacoma Public Utilities has considered the move to lease out all Click operations. Part 1, published on May 31, examines possible plans for Click in the immediate future.

Part 2: TPU’s Challenges with Click

When TPU officials proposed last March to lease the network to a private ISP for 40 years, they cited revenue losses for Click as high as $7.6 million annually, indicated by troubling financial reports in recent years. Some critics, however, such as those with the advocacy group “Stick with Click,” countered that this figure is inaccurate. They say that TPU manufactured the revenue losses through an accounting decision that resulted in a deceptively bleak picture of Click’s financial performance.

To shed light on the disagreement, we're examining relevant facts about Click.

Allocating the Costs of a Shared Infrastructure

When Tacoma first built the Click network in the late 1990s, the Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) infrastructure was to support services for two divisions of the TPU: TPU Power and Click. Besides the infrastructure’s function for supporting Click’s services, the city designed the HFC infrastructure to support a smart electrical metering program for TPU Power services.

This dual purpose meant that for accounting purposes, TPU had to allocate the costs of a shared network based how much each division would rely on the network. This cost allocation (a common accounting practice) would assign each division a portion of the original capital construction costs for building the network and a separate portion of the network’s ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs. 

Ultimately, and with the help of an independent consultant, the city settled on cost allocation ratios in 2003, which determined how the TPU would assign capital and O&M costs to each division.

TPU Power would pay 73 percent of the capital costs to build the HFC infrastructure; Click would pay the remaining 27 percent. Click would then pay a 76 percent of the network’s ongoing O&M costs, with TPU Power paying the remaining 24 percent of O&M.

For several years, TPU Power used the HFC infrastructure to facilitate operations of a series of smart meters. But a few years ago, TPU made the decision to follow what they said was a trend in the power industry to instead start using wireless technology for their smart metering needs. This decision, they said, led TPU Power to begin phasing out its use of the HFC infrastructure for their smart metering program.

Now that TPU Power would no longer be using the smart meters, they determined that this change would justify significantly increasing Click’s portion of the allocated O&M costs for the HFC infrastructure. After some dispute over how to fairly adjust the numbers, TPU settled on a new cost allocation which raised Click’s portion of the O&M costs from 76 percent to 94 percent.

Is the Updated Cost Allocation Justified?

Using these new cost allocation numbers, TPU reported that the Tacoma Click network was experiencing annual losses of $7.6 million. But some observers in Tacoma were skeptical of TPU’s cost allocation decision and loss figures. For instance, an accountant for a Tacoma-based tech company suggested a view expressed by many others in town that the TPU has not been sufficiently transparent about the nature and causes of Click's reported financial problems.

Others note that if Click had simply kept the original cost allocation structure unchanged, Click’s current reported annual operating losses would sit at a more modest $700,000 rather than the $7.6 million figure. 

Justin Marlowe, a professor of public finance at the University of Washington, told the Tacoma News Tribune that cost allocation decisions by government agencies like this are always based on somewhat subjective criteria:

“Cost allocation for internal budgeting and cost analysis purposes is really the Wild West,” he said. "There is very little in the way of national standards. It’s nothing like financial accounting, where there are very strict rules about general accounting principles.”

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Regardless, TPU officials believe that TPU Power has paid its fair share of costs for building and using the network and that the new cost allocation for the two divisions is justified. For one, TPU Power retained responsibility for paying its full, originally established 73 percent share of the $86 million capital costs for building the network. TPU Power also paid the portion of the O&M costs originially agreed upon during the period they were using the infrastructure for their smart meters. Now that TPU Power no longer uses the network for the smart meters, utility leadership sees the adjusted cost allocation as a natural result of these changes.

But supporters of the plan to keep Click believe TPU’s adjustment of O&M costs represents a broken agreement by TPU, a failure to follow the originally established financial conditions for building and then operating and maintaining the network. Moreover, Click supporters believe that the locally owned municipal network offers economic and other benefits to the city that TPU is failing to recognize.

Claims of Mounting Financial Challenges

When TPU’s constructed its HFC network in 1997, it provided speed, capacity, and reliability that far exceeded the standards in the telecommunications industry of the time. The only private competitor in Tacoma was TCI Communications and they offered inadequate Internet and cable TV services. Click’s arrival not only improved the quality of local connectivity, it also helped attract businesses to the community as part of a highly successful city revitalization effort in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2001, a couple of years after Click got off the ground, Comcast bought TCI and in 2008, Comcast upgraded their telecommunications infrastructure to a DOCSIS 3.0 network throughout the city. One report said that this upgrade enabled Comcast to start providing more affordable prices than Click at each speed tier for Internet service in Tacoma. And yet a more recent 2014 report says that Click’s service prices would continue to be below or the same as Comcast’s local prices, suggesting that reports of better prices from Comcast in Tacoma may have been based on temporary bait and switch promotional rates that Comcast is known to use to attract new customers. Still, the reality is that many Tacoma residents have at times at least had the perception that Comcast has offered the best prices for service in Tacoma.

Comcast also has the advantage of being able to provide bundled triple-play services -- Internet, cable TV, and phone. With Click’s business model, however, Click serves as retail provider of Cable TV services while providing only wholesale Internet access and phone services through a group of private ISPs. This divided model prevents Click from offering triple-play packages. Some in Tacoma believe that Click’s inability to offer a triple play option has been a major barrier in Click’s efforts to increase their take rate

Comcast’s extraordinary market power gives them another advantage. The conglomerate has had unparalleled leverage to negotiate rates on programming costs that are as much as 20 percent less than what Click pays. Because Comcast has the luxury of being able to use revenues from other markets to cross-subsidize their services in Tacoma, this makes it easier for them to offer low rates and deep promotional offers to compete with or even at times undercut Click’s prices. These are all indications that the company has an unfair competitive advantage in a marketplace with a very high concentration of ownership.

Finally, as the slide below from a recent TPU presentation shows, TPU’s original 1997 projections for expected cable TV subscriptions never reached projected rates.  And in 2010, Click had to increase their subscription prices after programming costs started increasing at about five times the rate of inflation, far outstripping TPU’s original projections. Overall, it’s clear that factors on the declining Cable TV side of Click’s business have been a major source of the network’s struggles.

 

Figure from TPU Presentation Illustrating Click’s Actual Performance Vs. Projections

This slide from a recent TPU presentation shows that Click's Cable TV division has underperformed while seeing higher than expected programming costs. It also shows, however, that their ISP business is exceeding expectations.

A Look Ahead to the Future of Click

Comcast’s built-in competitive advantages in Tacoma have likely hampered Click’s capacity to grow a larger customer base. The above slide also tells another story: one of recent strong growth on the Internet side of the business, growth that has allowed Click’s Internet services to exceed TPU's original projections. As we discuss in Part 3, this trend suggests that Click can expect to see continued growth in its core future function as an ISP.

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Photo Credit: Dean J. Koepfler, Tacoma News Tribune Staff Photographer, through Creative Commons

Community Broadband Media Roundup - June 6

California

City council candidate question 8: The big problem facing Davis by David Greenwald, Davis Vanguard

One of the most pressing issues facing our community in the coming years is the need for faster and more reliable broadband. It is a vital element of Yolo and Davis’ economic sustainability that will keep our community competitive locally, and globally. Broadband is a driving force behind the competitiveness and productivity of our businesses and fostering innovation.

The primary broadband providers in our community, AT&T and Comcast, have spent little money upgrading their infrastructure over time. Davis’ situation isn’t unique. Communities throughout the country are facing the same future. Many of them, including those in the Sacramento region, are asking the Federal and State governments for assistance in solving this challenge.

California bill allowing VOIP transition stalls, but opponents fear revivial by Alex Koma, StateScoop

A California bill allowing telecom providers to transition customers from wireline telephone service to Voice over Internet Protocol systems is now stalled in committee, but opponents fear the advocacy efforts of massive companies like AT&T could revive the legislation.

 

Colorado

Broadband boost streams ahead by Katharhynn Heidelberg, Montrose Daily Press

 

Iowa

Mediacom suffers setback in Iowa City muni-broadband battle by Daniel Frankel, FiereceCable

 

Massachusetts

Hardwick and Montague to Baker's telecom chief: We don't want Comcast by Mary Serraze, MassLive

 

North Carolina

Broadband master plan in the works for Haywood by Jessi Stone, Smoky Mountain News

... local governments are limited in what they can do to solve the problem. While governments aren’t allowed to install cable or fiber to offer service that would compete with private providers, they can assist in other ways. 

Ting to offer gigabit fiber in North Carolina by year's end by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

 

Oregon

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Fiber facts should overcome fears by Kevin Padrick, Lake Oswego Review

 

Tennessee

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

It’s been such a success that dozens of other towns and cities have begun their own municipal broadband networks, providing Internet faster and cheaper than private companies.

“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.”

 

General

Sorry, it's time to start counting gigabytes at home, too by Klint Finley, Wired

The more customers shift their attention from pay television to streaming video services, the more data they’ll use. Unless data limits increase along with usage–or Comcast decides not to expand its test–AT&T and Comcast’s new pricing schemes could add up fast, especially in households with multiple people watching different streams at once.

The bright future of dark fiber by Susan Crawford, BackChannel