Idaho Falls Thinks Ahead With Circa Network

Businesses in Idaho Falls have access to the city’s municipal fiber network, Circa, but now the city council is considering how to bring better connectivity to residents.

How Best To Use What We Have

In order to get a better idea of what options are available and the costs of each, in 2015 city leaders engaged two consulting firms to evaluate a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) option, an open access network option, how commercial providers may step up to better serve the city, or the city taking on the role as Internet Service Provider (ISP). They are now beginning to evaluate those results.

Private providers have leased Circa dark fibers for years to connect local businesses and businesses themselves have worked directly with Idaho Falls Power, the entity that manages the network. “We have enjoyed a successful public/private partnership in our fiber optic enterprise for well over a decade,” said Jackie Flowers, General Manager, in a recent Local 8 News article.

Nevertheless, city leaders are keeping their eye on tomorrow. From another Local 8 News article:

"We're tripling our broadband needs every few years," said Jackie Flowers, the general manager of Idaho Falls Power that manages the network. "That exponential growth, for us to be thinking about the long term, how are we going to meet those needs?"

Seven ISPs are now using the network to serve approximately 400 businesses in Idaho Falls. The publicly owned infrastructure provides voice, video, and data with Gigabit per second capacity. The city began developing the network in 2002 and began serving customers in 2007 via more than 170 miles of fiber-optic cable throughout the city. In addition to saving the community by reducing telecommunications costs, the network has generated revenue.

City leaders in Idaho Falls are conscious of the value of the asset they have now and smart to consider the future. As they did in 2002, they are looking ahead so they don’t have to play catch-up later on. Consultants put early estimates for a citywide expansion and upgrade at approximately $60 million but:

Many in the City Council agreed that while the initial price is steep, they worry more about what they would loose if they didn't act and didn't prepare for the future. 

"One of the responsibilities of the city council is not to just sit where we are and do status quo," said Ed Marohn, an Idaho Falls city council member. "We have to look at the future for the city. What we envision 20 or 30 years down the road." 

City Council members and representatives from Idaho Falls Public Power agreed to do more research over the summer and aim for public input this fall before taking the next step.

Idaho Falls

The city is the largest in eastern Idaho, with a population of 57,000 within the Idaho Falls-Blackfoot metropolitan area of approximately 136,000. The city is the county seat of Bonneville County and the center of activity in western Wyoming as well as eastern Idaho. Located on the Snake River, Idaho Falls maintains an extensive Green Belt through the center of its 22 square miles. It’s often on various “best places to live” lists with low crime rates, a vibrant art community, and extensive outdoor recreation.

Certainly, a fast, affordable, reliable FTTH network would keep Idaho Falls on those lists and maybe bump it up a notch or two.

Local coverage:

Community Broadband Media Roundup - May 30

Idaho

Idaho Falls exploring options to provide fiber optic connections to homes by KIDK-3 TV

The city’s current fiber infrastructure has not only improved operational efficiencies for the city and its utilities, but it has also facilitated economic development, competitive internet service rates and helped maintain city rights-of-way.

Ammon moves to create fiber optic district by KIDK-3 TV

 

Maryland

How fiber broadband factors into this Maryland town's future by Stephen Babcock, Technical.ly Baltimore

 

Minnesota

Session implodes at midnight over roads, public works by J. Patrick Coolican, Minneapolis Star Tribune

The spending agreement included new spending on key Dayton priorities: $35 million on rural broadband Internet development, $35 million on closing economic disparities for people of color with another $17.5 million every year going forward, and $25 million on prekindergarten access, with $55 million every year thereafter to help disadvantaged children get ready for school. Dayton had sought much larger amounts for all of these initiatives.

 

Missouri

Politicians fail in bid to squash municipal broadband in Missouri by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

Missouri's attempted municipal broadband ban fails by Fierce Telecom

 

Virginia

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The questions Roanoke County should be asking about broadband by Roanoke Times Editorial Board

The latest example is the survey that the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association had conducted to see how Roanoke County residents feel about the proposal for the county to spend $3.4 million to build a 25-mile network of broadband fiber through the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (which already has a 47-mile network in Roanoke and Salem).

Except that’s not exactly how the questions were framed. Not surprisingly, they were framed in a way to produce exactly the results the cable industry wanted — and got. The results purport to show that county residents don’t think much of the idea. Of course they don’t.

Not when the question is framed like this: “The County government should use taxpayer dollars to compete with businesses in the private sector — Do you Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree or Strongly Disagree?”

 

General

Cable lobby asks FCC for more time to argue business broadband rules by Giuseppe Macri, Inside Sources

How good is US internet access? That's a matter of some debate by Mario Trujillo, The Hill

Dozens of cities are running their own municipal broadband services that offer super-fast speeds. The federal government has also helped with this effort. The FCC recently preempted a pair of state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee so that cities there could expand the service outside their borders. 

Cable lobby says FCC launched assault on industry "without provocation" by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

Powell also complained that the cable industry has been "marked for rate regulation." While the FCC doesn't impose utility-style rate regulation on home Internet or TV service, the FCC has proposed new price rules that affect certain types of business data services offered by cable companies. On the other hand, the commission is helping cable TV providers avoid rate regulation at the municipal level.

Wheeler argues that consumers have been harmed by the lack of competition in the set-top box market, as 99 percent of customers still rent cable boxes directly from their providers and generally pay a high price. He has also pointed to customer harm to support other initiatives. For example, a lack of competition that drives up prices and restricts Internet access was cited to support an order that overturned municipal broadband restrictions that help cable companies avoid competition.

GOP budget bill would kill net neutrality and FCC's set-top box plan by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

Stark County, Ohio, Hires Consultant For Feasibility Study

Longtime efforts by community leaders in Stark County, Ohio, to create a new countywide Internet network have recently taken important steps forward.

Local Support Is Strong

In the past few months, three local government agencies approved informal resolutions to explore building the proposed network, including the City Council in Canton, the Stark County commissioners, and the trustees in Jackson Township. County population is about 375,000 within the 575 square miles located in the northeast section of the state.

In May, an all-volunteer organization comprised of local leaders called the Stark County Broadband Task Team (SCBBTT) announced that they had raised $100,000 needed to fund a feasibility study to explore the construction of the network. The SCBBTT also recently announced they hired a consultant to conduct the study.

We Have a Need for “Transformational” Internet Speed

The SCBBTT is comprised of a large group of volunteers from the county including major figures from government, the business community, and the nonprofit sector. Several years ago the group began working on a plan to construct the network, labeling it a “fourth utility” and saying that Stark County was “falling behind its peers in Ohio and elsewhere in the United States in terms of educational attainment, household income, retention of high-school graduates and overall prosperity.”

Stagnant countywide population growth has been a problem for Stark County in recent years. This is partly explained by the dramatic decline in the county’s manufacturing economy as the county has lost approximately 34 percent of its goods-producing jobs since the new millennium began. Meanwhile, Stark County leaders know that emerging industries are demanding fast, reliable, affordable connectivity - not what’s currently available in Stark County.

County leaders believe that the new network can provide a “transformational” force toward attracting tech-driven businesses and young professionals. As Ohio's manufacturing industry declines, other communities in the Buckeye State are considering fiber connectivity a way to attract job creators. We have recently reported on Hudson and Fairlawn, where community leaders know better connectivity will improve services for residents and businesses. Upper Arlington is also planning on offering dark services to businesses interested in making use of its publicly owned fiber.

Publicly owned Internet infrastructure can become the foundation for a revitalized economy in Stark County. With support from local government leaders and a strong group of volunteers driving the effort, they are headed in the right direction.

Push Poll And Passion: Network Will Expand in Roanoke County

The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) network is live in Virginia, and the state’s cable-telco lobby is not happy. Despite the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA) attempts to turn people against the network, local leaders in Roanoke County decided to help fund further expansion.

As part of their $183 million budget, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors included $3.4 million to bring the network into the county, with economic development driving the vote. From the Roanoke Times coverage of the vote:

“There is so much that is great that is going on in Roanoke County,” [Supervisor Joe McNamara] said. “Whether it’s what we’re doing for community development with our strategic planning, what we’re doing from an economic development standpoint, what we’ve done with allocating money toward storm water management. I really see broadband as just one area of the budget.”

How Did This Come About?

The network had started out as a joint project among the cities of Salem and Roanoke and the counties of Botetourt and Roanoke. Both counties dropped from the project, leaving the cities to do it themselves. Now with the network live, Roanoke County is reconsidering its previous hesitation.

In late April 2016, the RVBA celebrated the official lighting of the 47-mile fiber network. Fittingly, the first customer is the Blue Ridge PBS station: the local publicly-owned network is serving the connectivity needs of local public television. The overall goal, however, is economic development, and the RVBA intends to sign up 60 small and large customers in the next year and a half. In six years, they expect the network to break even and be self-sustaining.

Questionable Questions

That’s concerning to the state’s cable-telco lobby. VCTA, whose top donors are Comcast and Cox, hired a team of telemarketers to present a simple, yet biased, survey to county residents. The VCTA hired a telemarketing firm for a push poll to sway county residents, and the Roanoke Times Editorial Board is pushing for the real questions.

The Roanoke Times Editorial Board, however, called out the validity of the push poll and shared some of the facts and the benefits of the new network. Just check out some of the leading questions included in the poll as reproduced in the Roanoke Times:

“A recent report by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that business leaders universally cite inadequate airline service as the most serious problem faced by the region; noting that it has a major impact on recruiting and retaining professionals and businesses, with that in mind, which of the following you prefer be done by the Roanoke County government for the currently proposed funding of $3.4 million dollars --- invest in efforts to improve the region’s inadequate airline service or create a redundant broadband network?”

This push poll is trying to sway public opinion against expanding the network by calling it “redundant” or "repetitive," ignoring the fact that redundancy is important in infrastructure. Airline service is a major concern, but affordable high-speed Internet access is also good for economic development. Clearly, this question makes the incorrect assumption that people answering the poll are too unsophisticated to make the connection between connectivity and the needs of businesses.

Broadband vs. Ice Cream

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The Roanoke Times has provided searing responses to the anti-community network arguments. Their editorial piece from a few weeks ago detailed how a community-owned network is different than a publicly-owned ice-cream shop. Apparently, one of the Roanoke County Supervisors had made such an argument. (We couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.)

The fight that’s going down in Roanoke includes such epic quotes as this one from the Roanoke Times Editorial piece about ice cream: 

“Municipal broadband may or may not make sense for a particular community, but the idea is not exactly one being pushed by beret-capped socialists quoting ‘Das Kapital.’ On the contrary, it’s cold-eyed disciples of Adam Smith — specifically business leaders, the captains of the private sector — who are usually the most enthusiastic champions.”

Weighing Options? Consider the Questions

The Roanoke Times Editorial Board's latest piece urged the supervisors to consider the real questions:

“The city obviously felt the best way to be economically competitive was through the broadband authority and its open-access network; does the county see a way to achieve the same — or better — results through a purely private-sector approach?”

This is what localities need to be asking themselves as they see their neighbors form community networks. What are the paths to affordable high-speed Internet access? And what makes the most sense for our communities?

Addendum: The cable companies like to claim that municipal fiber networks are "redundant" but they actually aren't... unless you believe an 18 wheeler truck is redundant of a bicycle or a container ship is redundant of a cabin cruiser. An all-fiber network is next-generation infrastructure that aims to provide a real choice in communities monopolized by last-generation cable technology. But don't take my word for, listen to Slick Sam...

MPLS Park Board Obstructing FTTH: More Coverage

After our article earlier this month on US Internet’s problems obtaining permission to install conduit under Minneapolis Park Board boulevard property, several other articles appeared in local media.

TV station KARE 11 ran a piece on the issue and interviewed Julie Stenberg, who observed, "Technically it's park land, but people are not playing Frisbee, they're not picnicking here.” (Watch the video below.)

The Star Tribune also ran an article noting that people like Julie, who live adjacent to park owned boulevards, may never have the opportunity to take Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service from the local provider.  If US Internet wants to obtain a permit to bury conduit along the parkway in order to get to Julie's house - the only option available - they will have to shell out $27,000 in fees. People around the corner from Julie are already getting FTTH service from US Internet.

Permit Denied

According to the Strib, Commissioners denied a permit for boulevard placement and for placement under Minnehaha Creek in South Minneapolis because it lacked the detail they required. The Park Bard is concerned about damage to trees during both conduit placement and any maintenance:

“We’d directional drill, and we’d be 12 to 14 feet under the creek bed,” [US Internet’s Vice President Travis] Carter said. “You will not see anything when we’re done. It’s just a pipe deep underground that nobody will see.”

US Internet has no access to Comcast and CenturyLink poles, so an underground network is its only option. Alleys are too tight to safely use the boring and maintenance equipment, especially in the winter, but the Park Board is not convinced, “It’s really important for USI to demonstrate that there’s no alternative,” [Assistant Park Superintendent Michael Schroeder] said.

Caught Behind A Boulevard And A Creek

Addresses south of Minneahaha Creek may not get access if the two parties do not resolve the problem. In order to reach thousands more homes and businesses they intend to pass, US Internet will need to place fiber under the creek in three or four locations as it runs through the southern part of the city. The company and the Board will meet to discuss their concerns and, while Minneapolitans appreciate their parks, many like Julie Stenberg also want FTTH as an alternative to Comcast or CenturyLink. 

“I think it’s probably smart to deny this, but I think it’s also probably smart to continue to work with them,” said Commissioner Brad Bourn. “I don’t think we want to be viewed as obstructive to people accessing technology.”

Going OK So Far...

The company has been installing conduit and fiber all over South Minneapolis, including in my neighborhood, where there are many trees on boulevards and none of them appear to have been disturbed. Fiber is rugged, often with a 20+ year shelf life. With the added protection of being tucked away from squirrels and other creatures that like to chew on aerial cables (I speak from experience), it isn’t likely trees on the park boulevards will be bothered often by maintenance crews. Buried fiber is also more appealing to the eye than the ugly overheard wires placed by Comcast and CenturyLink.

"No One Is Playing Frisbee Here"

A three-foot-wide strip of grass next to the street should not be treated the same as a baseball diamond where kids play, a wetlands where wildlife flourishes, or open green space where families fly kites on Saturdays. We’re glad that the Minneapolis Park Board is protecting the city’s jewel - it’s park system - but rather than taking an “all or nothing” approach in this matter, they need to consider the science, look at the pros and cons, and exercise a healthy dose of common sense.

 

Missouri HB 2078 Fails: Post Mortem Play-By-Play

Since we alerted our audience to the shenanigans surrounding Missouri’s HB 2078, a couple of other news medias have picked up the story and reported on the dramatic end of session climax. As we rest in the glow of the denouement, we want to provide a follow up for those who may have missed the final outcome and offer some words from Jim Baller, who was deep in the trenches.

Here's What Happened...

If you have not yet heard, the language from HB 2078 was ultimately not adopted by the Missouri State Legislature. Whew. Readers probably recall that, when HB 2078 stalled on its own, the author of HB 2078, Rep. Lyndall Fraker slipped some of the more damaging language into SB 765, a traffic ticket bill that had nothing to do with municipal networks.

Fortunately, advocates of municipal networks had been able to educate Members who were part of the appropriate conference committee. Those elected officials decided to remove the language from SB 765 before final passage. Anti-muni Members also attempted to amend the language into a third bill, HB 1912, which concerned county buildings. The sponsor of the amendment then turned around and chose to strip out the language that began in HB 2078 from his amendment, once he learned that its inclusion would have sparked a filibuster and killed the entire amendment.

A Tough Fight That Isn't Over

Jim Baller, the nation’s leading telecommunications attorney who was directly involved with defeating the bill told Communications Daily:

“This was one of the toughest state battles that we’ve fought in years. It took months of constant vigilance, quick and effective reactions to ever-changing language, and hard daily work with key members of the legislature. The most important part was getting across the message that this is not a matter of the public sector competing with the private sector, but of communities retaining the ability to work with willing incumbents, create public-private partnerships, develop their own networks, or do whatever else they believe necessary to acquire affordable access to the advanced broadband networks on which their futures will depend.”

Jim went on to tell us that a number of people dedicated their time and energy to stopping the harmful language of HB 2078.

“Many Missouri communities and national organizations contributed to this victory, but special kudos go to Ewell Lawson, the Manager of Government Relations of the Municipal Public Utility Alliance, and Richard Brownlee, Google’s legislative representative for Missouri.” 

The battle this year in Missouri was yet another chapter in what is becoming an annual occurrence. This year's events underscore how changes to bill language and procedural process can change the course of legislation up until the gavel comes down sine die. Along with Jim, Ewell, Richard, the MPUA, and the other folks who believe that local communities in Missouri should make their own decisions, we will continue to watch the state legislature and keep you in the loop.

Community Connections - Matt Rantanen, Tribal Digital Village

Tribal governments face unique problems when connecting their communities, but the need is great. 

In this episode of Community Connections, Christopher Mitchell speaks with Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association (SCTCA) and Director of the Tribal Digital Village (TDV) Initiative. Mitchell and Rantanen talk about the special challenges of deploying fiber on tribal lands.

 


OK, Just What Does Open Access Mean Anymore?

In our experience, just about every community considering building a community network considers open access. They want to enable new choices for services and often would prefer the local government avoid directly competing with existing service providers, for a variety of reasons. However, we are only tracking 30 open access networks on our just-released Open Access resource page.

Many of the communities that start off enthusiastic about open access ultimately decide to have a single service provider (themselves or a contractor) to have more certainty over the revenues needed to pay operating expenses and debt. We believe this will change as the technology matures and more communities embrace software-defined networks (SDN) -- but before tackling that topic, we think it is important to discuss the meaning of open access.

On a regular basis, I get an email from one deep-thinking person or another that says, "That network isn't really open access." They almost always make good points. The problem is that different people embrace open access for different reasons - they often have different expectations of outcomes. Understanding that is key to evaluating open access.

How Many ISPs?

One of the key questions centers on how many providers a household is likely to be able to choose from. Various factors, including the network architecture and economics of becoming a service provider, will influence this outcome.

Some communities simply seek to avoid a monopoly network - they are focused on the idea of potential competition. For instance, we believe Huntsville's model and agreement with Google can be considered open access because any party could lease fiber from the utility to compete with Google. However, we believe the costs of doing so by using that network architecture make robust competition unlikely.

If Google is a strong competitor in Huntsville, they will likely not face significant competition from other ISPs on the utility fiber though AT&T and Comcast will still use their networks to compete. But in the event that Google is not a strong competitor, the door will be open to other ISPs to give people a better choice. It is extremely unlikely that this arrangement would give residents many choices for Internet access, but it is an improvement over the one or two pathetic incumbent options most of us face. Google is left with an incentive to meet user expectations, knowing that it could face competition if people are unsatisfied.

The UTOPIA model has resulted in many more choices for both businesses and residents, but most of those businesses are offering similar services at similar prices. The fact that it does not carry a "marquee" provider like Google or a national cable company on it may make brand awareness (and therefore marketing) more difficult, but it also provides opportunities for excellent local firms like XMission to thrive.

Simultaneous Services

This leads into a second question: can a premise subscribe to multiple service providers simultaneously or do they have to choose one? This may sound like a dumb question at first - why would you want to subscribe to two different ISPs? Aside from perhaps wanting video or phone services from one and Internet access from another, many are hoping to see more innovation on this front. We have written frequently on Ammon, Idaho, because they are doing some of the best work in this regard.

The ability to offer simultaneous services depends greatly on the underlying technology. Not all FTTH networks can give ISPs the tools they need to have confidence in delivering a high quality product reliably to their subscribers. Communities that want to ensure they have this capacity should pick a consultant that deeply understands these issues and has worked previously on open access.

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The Holy Grail among those who prioritize this flavor of open access is to make it very easy for network subscribers to manage their own subscriptions - changing providers on the fly (and again, see Ammon for a model). This approach would allow ISPs to specialize and greatly encourage innovation, particularly for niche services. You might subscribe to an ISP that specializes in great connections for video games while also having a part of your connection dedicated to a home alarm system and still be able to initiate a high quality teleconference for health care that wasn't transported on the public Internet.

Market Entry Costs and Consequences

A key question about open access comes down to market entry costs. How much will it cost an ISP to serve potential subscribers? In Huntsville, the costs of building drops suggests it will still cost hundreds of dollars per sub, which is less than the $1,000+ per sub that it would likely cost to build a network from scratch.

We would generally expect that the lower the cost for an ISP to connect subscribers, the more ISPs would be on the network. However, there is an initially surprising problem that can arise when the cost to offer services is very low, something occasionally called "ruinous competition." This is used to various levels of seriousness but represents a common economic problem: if a product has little differentiation (like an ISP offering only Internet access), then subscribers are likely to decide on the ISP based solely on cost. Over time, ISPs will cut prices until the margin all but disappears, which runs most of the providers out of business (or they consolidate) and the competition effectively disappears.

One of the key points of the “ruinous competition” problem is whether ISPs are effectively providing the same thing (generic Internet access) or services (home security, remote backup, help desk, telemedicine, etc.). To the extent that they are offering different kinds of services, we can avoid that problem. However, it is not clear that most networks today are technically capable of allowing service providers to differentiate their services in any significant way, which is again why Ammon's forward-thinking software-defined networking approach is so important.

Like other aspects of technology, open access will evolve with innovation. For now, open access means different things to different people who are often seeking different outcomes.

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

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

Lakeland Considering Its Next Step In Florida

In August 2013, we reported on Lakeland, Florida’s dark fiber network that serves local schools, government facilities, and local businesses. Over the past year or so, community leaders have discussed whether or not to expand the use of Lakeland’s fiber resources.

A 2015 feasibility study suggested several other ways to use Lakeland’s existing 330 miles of fiber infrastructure to enhance connectivity for economic development and residential access. As the city examines its finances and its future in the coming months, city leaders are considering six avenues to meet the community’s needs. The options, some recommended by consultants, vary in type and investment and the City Commission will begin discussing the possibilities as they meet in the upcoming months.

Leaders Consider The Next Move

Lakeland is examining public policies that will encourage better connectivity, such as dig-once, permitting changes, and right-of-way regulations. With smart policies in place, Lakeland can lay the groundwork so they can build off progress made today.

In 2013, Polk Vision, a group of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals, along with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council developed the Polk County Broadband Plan. Another option is using the Plan as a guidepost and aligning Lakeland’s plan to support the goals set in the Polk County Plan. Connecting the schools to a larger network would be part of that plan.

Lakeland, like many other communities wants to give providers operating in the community today the opportunity to work with them to improve services. Another option the city will pursue is reaching out to providers in Lakeland and engaging in discussions to upgrade or expand services to better meet the needs of the community. (We haven't seen much success when communities pursue large incumbents, but smaller local providers are sometimes more willing to work with communities.)

SurfLakeland, the city’s free Wi-Fi service that is available in limited areas downtown, in parks, and at municipal facilities, could be expanded. According to Terry Brigman, Lakeland’s CIO and Director of IT, whatever course city leaders choose, the equipment for the free service is due for an upgrade. SurfLakeland has been available for approximately ten years.

Another possible move will be a pilot project to determine how a larger network might do in Lakeland. Pilot projects are becoming more common as a way to test the waters and can help prove that potential subscribers are willing to switch from traditional providers to a new venture. We’ve reported on a growing number of pilot projects in recent years, including Westfield, Massachusetts; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; and Owensboro, Kentucky.

The City Commission will also consider releasing a Request for Information (RFI) to seek out a partner to develop a plan to improve connectivity in Lakeland with infrastructure deployment. 

A Hard Look At The Numbers

Community leaders in Lakeland reviewed the study and are discussing several recommendations. The consulting firm also suggested using city fiber resources as a basis for a more extensive network and that the city branch out to launch as an open access provider, or a retail services provider to businesses in select areas. Another option is to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services to every property within the city limits or within the Lakeland Electric service territory. The authors of the study estimated an FTTH in Lakeland would cost from $220 - $270 million if it's built out over the Lakeland Electric service area and would pay for itself in six to seven years.

In March, the City’s Chief Financial Officer gave his opinion about a potential FTTH project. In his opinion, the consultant's recommendation is too risky because “margins of error are too thin” based on the study’s authors' predictions of a 40 percent take rate.

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The financing, calculated on 20-year bonds, required price increases of 1.5 percent every year.

He went on to say, however, that he did not think the city should abandon the idea of finding a way to bring better connectivity to Lakeland, but that, “I'm simply saying the model we were presented that involved the city purchasing, managing (and) maintaining a broadband system is not feasible."

Support, Adversity Still Alive

Earlier this month, the Ledger reported that Commissioners discussing the issue said that, if the results of the financial analysis and risk assessment still due from the consultants are favorable, they will consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility. Out of seven Commissioners attending the meeting, five expressed support.

A grassroots citizens' initiative, Gigabit Lakeland, has also sprung up in the community and encourages citizens to sign an online petition. They want community leaders to use of the existing publicly owned fiber to bring more choice to Lakeland. Currently, there is a small amount of Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks cable Internet access (which is now owned by Charter Communications).

While residents have expressed support for taking action, economic development and better business connectivity is on everyone’s mind. In March, the Ledger reported (reprinted at GovTech) on a meeting of the Downtown Lakeland Partnership, a group of business leaders:

Ellen Simms, the co-owner of Two Hens and a Hound, said that for a decade her connection has fizzled out when it rains and she can't get the provider to fix it. 

Kate Lake, who hosted the meeting with [Lakeland CIO Terry] Brigman at her business, My Office & More, said the dedicated fiber optics line she pays for at her shared office for hire "is killing me." 

"I'm paying through the teeth." 

Brigman pointed out at the meeting that the Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area was determined to be the seventh worst served area in the country, according to Polk Vision. "We don't have what we need," he said. "We don't have what we need to compete with our neighbors." 

As expected, the incumbent providers have expressed concern, warned of repercussions, and attended meetings but still chosen not to invest in the infrastructure Lakeland needs. Elected officials in Lakeland appear open minded to discussion but don’t have the patience to be put on an endless waiting list if owning their own network or working with a trusted partner is a possibility. From an October article in the Ledger:

"The demand for data services is growing exponentially and it will grow in our homes and grow in our businesses when we have access to it. That we don't have access to it is the limiting factor," not a lack of demand, [Commissioner Jim Malless] said.

He said the commission owes it to the "incumbent services," Bright House Networks and Verizon, to get their points of view and find out what plans they have for upgrading their services in Lakeland.

"To me, they can provide that service tomorrow. They choose not to, and if it's economics to them, we have to get over the hurdle for the economics for us," Malless said. "I'd really like to hear why you don't provide the service."