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Greenlight Upgrades Pinetops, North Carolina, With FTTH

In April, Wilson’s, municipal fiber network, Greenlight, expanded to pass every home in neighboring rural Pinetops. How is it going? Acting Town Manager, Brenda Harrell said, “We just love it!”

No Longer Out of Reach

Pinetops is about a 20 minute drive due east from Greenlight’s operations center, but more importantly, it is in another county entirely. Wilson serves six neighboring counties with its municipal electric services. Turning on internet service in Pinetops was an easy reach for Wilson, where fiber was being deployed as part of an automated meter infrastructure project.

Back in February 2015, the FCC preempted a North Carolina state law, known as H129, that prohibited Wilson from serving any residents outside of Wilson County. The preemption allowed Wilson to finish the project it had to suspend when H129 became law. In addition to the benefits of automated metering, Pinetops now experiences a higher quality of life with fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Greenlight To The Present

For Pinetops, bringing fiber services to its residents and small businesses was like snapping it from the late 1980s into the 21st century. Pinetops is a community with about 600 homes all located within one square mile. It is by all signs rural, surrounded by huge open fields of sweet potatoes, tobacco and soy plants. The average median income is $26,333; according to the census bureau, 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. Local officials, say that the community was desperately underserved with unreliable DSL service or dialup before Greenlight came to town. Thanks to Wilson, even the local Piggly Wiggly market has fiber-optic Internet from Greenlight.

Looking Ahead

The community is excited for its future. After watching a video of how quickly video homework can be uploaded on a Gigabit connection (8 seconds) versus DSL (2 hours and 59 minutes), the new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon, was full of ideas. Pinetops, with median homes valued around $78,000 and the option of Gigabit speeds (1,000 Megabits per second), could offer low cost affordable housing to professionals now living in Greenville, a nearby university community full of doctors, students, digital artists and knowledge workers.

 “If the private sector is not providing the services, the government has to step in,” said Pinetops new Town Manager, Lorenzo Carmon. “The internet is just like electricity. You can’t live without it.”  

Community Connections - Joey Durel: Lafayette, Louisiana

The city of Lafayette, Louisiana had an export problem. For years they had seen their young people become educated and move away from the small city, but local leaders like Joey Durel listened to experts like Terry Huval when they encouraged him to look into building a citywide fiber network.

In this video Christopher Mitchell interviews Joey Durel, former City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana. In 2009 Lafayette Utilities System installed infrastructure for a fiber telecommunications network called LUS Fiber. The network provides digital cable, telephone service, and high-speed Internet to all households in Lafayette.

In the video, Durel emphasizes the hidden benefit of controversy when building advanced Internet networks: controversy educates the public. When local leaders are able to "think outside the box" and encourage discussion and debate, they are much more able to educate their constituents and in turn, make change. 

 

 

Tiny Mt Washington Builds Fiber-to-the-Home - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 212

Overlooked by the incumbent telephone company, Mount Washington in the southwest corner of Massachusetts is becoming one of the smallest FTTH communities in the country by investing in a municipal fiber network. A strong majority of the town committed to three years of service and the state contributed $230,000 to build the network after a lot of local groundwork and organizing.

Select Board member Gail Garrett joins us for episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits to discuss their process and the challenges of crafting an economical plan on such a small scale.

It turns out that the rural town had some advantages - low make-ready costs from the lack of wires on poles and no competition to have to worry about. So they are moving forward and with some cooperation from the telephone company and electric utility, they could build it pretty quickly. We also discuss what happens to those homes that choose not to take service when it is rolled out - they will have to pay more later to be connected.

Read the rest of our coverage of Mt Washington here.

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

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.

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."

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. 

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.

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.

Westminster Muni Network Expanding

Marking another big step forward, the mayor and Common Council of Westminster, Maryland (pop. 18,000) have hired a telecommunications, utility and government contracting firm to continue building the first two phases of the Westminster Fiber Network (WFN).

City Hires SMC

Westminster expects to complete this construction in 2017, providing Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to an additional 2,700 homes and businesses in the western part of the community, according to a city news release. Cost of this phase is undetermined $21 million, Westminster marketing consultant Jason Stambaugh told us; the city will issue general obligation bonds to fund the entire cost of the network the expansion.

One year after Westminster celebrated lighting its municipal fiber network, the city hired SMC, Inc. to construct the expansion. Westminster is partnering with Toronto-based Ting to provide retail services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. 

“This expansion of the WFN is an important milestone and demonstrates the City’s continued commitment to revolutionize Internet access, bring local jobs, and drive innovation that will enable the community to thrive.”

Westminster began building its municipal fiber network in October, 2014, and entered into a public-private partnership with Ting in February, 2015. The city owns the infrastructure and Ting leases fiber to bring Internet service to businesses and residents. Westminster began its municipal fiber network, spending about $1.8 million to get the project started in a residential retirement community and an industrial park. 

Bonds Back Fiber Network  

Because of high demand, the City Council voted to expand the municipal fiber project, approving a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank.  

As MuniNetworks.org reported last December:

“According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster.”  

Although the city doesn’t have hard numbers on the impact of the pilot program, there have been plenty of positive anecdotal reports, Stambaugh told us. He noted: 

“One of our local businesses, Open Professional Group, has said that the Internet service he's able to purchase over the network through Ting is allowing his firm to save money on their monthly Internet bills and has drastically increased productivity. He's also noted that he's extremely proud of his Internet speeds. When clients come in for a visit, he'll often do a speed test to show off his new Gigabit connection.”

Currently, Westminster is in the midst of completing engineering and going through a competitive bidding process on the project, Stambaugh told us.  

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More on Westminster Fiber 

We've published numerous stories on Westminster’s municipal fiber network. Just last month, we highlighted a Carroll County Times report about Westminster officials and the city’s fiber network partner, Ting, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the first Ting Makerspace, a service featuring 3-D scanning technology. 

You can also learn more about the WFN by listening to episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Chris Mitchell talked with Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the plan in Westminster. Learn more details about the partnership between Westminster and Ting by downloading our report, The Secrets Behind Partnerships to Improve Internet Access.

UPDATE: While the exact cost of this phase is yet to be determined, City Council documents reflect that SMC was hired to complete phase 1 and begin phase 2. The firm will be paid approximately $3.8 million. Strambaugh stressed that this expansion to 2,700 properties is a substantial percentage of the community’s 7,000 premises.

Comments Wanted: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

As part of a growing interest in expanding fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for low-income families at home, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a new regulation requiring high-speed Internet infrastructure to be installed in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation. While the proposed rule doesn’t require developers to pay for Internet service subscriptions, it is a step in eliminating barriers that low-income families face in obtaining quality, consistent Internet access. Public comments are due July 18, 2016.

The proposed rule covers HUD’s rental assistance and grant programs, including its Section 8 housing assistance program, Supportive Housing for the Elderly and Disabled program, Community Development Block Grant program, and Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant program. Families living in multi-family housing can then choose to purchase full-priced Internet access from local providers or utilize other resources in their community, which include federal subsidy programs in addition to other state, local, and charitable programs.

Getting Wired Up

As for the actual infrastructure, several types of Internet access technologies satisfy the requirement. Developers can install either wireless (Wi-Fi, fixed and mobile wireless, satellite) or wired (digital subscriber lines also known as DSL, power lines or BPL, cable lines, or fiber) infrastructure. HUD expects most builders will elect to install wired access because of the rapidly changing nature of wireless technologies.

Additionally, wired access is more likely to provide meaningful competition between several Internet Service Providers (ISPs), lowering costs and improving service quality for multi-family housing residents. In an open access network, ISPs typically lease space on infrastructure owned by another entity rather than owning the physical infrastructure themselves. If HUD's new rule called for an open access model, multiple ISPs could utilize a building’s wired infrastructure to offer services to residents. According to HUD’s estimates, which are detailed in the proposed rule, the average construction costs for wired broadband access in its multi-family housing is approximately $200 per unit.

Promoting Equity Through Competition

HUD’s proposed rule is one of the federal government’s initial attempts to address the digital divide. Programs such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program provide credits to families to purchase Internet services, but the programs are small and help consumers pay bills rather than lower costs by promoting competition.

HUD seeks public input about the proposed rule. While HUD asks for feedback on specific questions in the proposal, ILSR also encourages comments that affirm the importance of the proposed rule and support the installation of wired technologies that create open access networks that offer multiple benefits to subscribers rather than wireless technologies. Comments can be submitted online or by mail and are due July 18, 2016

Fiber in Lenox, Iowa

When community leaders in Lenox, Iowa, gathered together to examine the community's cable TV options in the 1980s, they probably didn't expect their decision to impact local Internet access. Fast-forward 30 years, and this town of 1,400 people now has one of the most sought after forms of Internet access infrastructure: Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Lenox Municipal Utilities owns and operates a FTTH network that offers symmetrical speeds to hundreds of customers in town. It’s just one of many communities around the nation that have invested in this rugged, future-proof technology.

Same Utility, Changing Technology

We spoke with the Lenox Municipal Utilities General Manager John Borland who graciously provided some of the history of the network.

Since the early 1900s, Lenox has operated its own electric and water systems. These essential services enabled the community to thrive in the southern plains of Iowa. Eventually, a local entrepreneur decided to build and operate a TV system to ensure that the Lenox community stayed connected. In the 1980s, the town purchased the coaxial network from the owner who was ready to sell the system, but wanted to keep ownership within the community. Unfortunately, Borland didn’t know the identity of the entrepreneur whose investment eventually led to top-notch connectivity in this most unexpected place.

By the late 1990s, the network needed replacing, and nationwide, communities had already begun to realize the importance of Internet access. The incumbent Internet service provider, Frontier, offered dial-up and some DSL. Anticipating future need, Lenox decided to rebuild the entire network with fiber. 

Better Connectivity in the Community

In 2005, the community voted on a referendum to enable the utility to provide Internet service; it was one of many towns voting that year to ensure local control. The FTTH build cost about $1.5 million, which they funded through municipal revenue bonds.

Farmers Mutual Telephone Company ran a fiber line to Lenox, ensuring middle mile connectivity. By 2008, Lenox Municipal Utilities had the FTTH system up and running, bringing high-speed Internet to residents and businesses.

Now, Lenox Municipal Utilities offers triple play: television, telephone, and symmetrical Internet service, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. They also provide bundled packages for customers who want to purchase all three services. The network has about 450 customers for their Internet service, and several larger businesses have dedicated lines. 

Lenox is just one of the many small communities that offer next-generation high-speed connectivity in Iowa. For more stories about these self-reliant Iowa communities, check out our past stories in the Iowa tag.

Leverett Releases RFP For ISP: Responses Due August 15th

Leverett, Massachusetts, has operated its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network since August 2015, working with Crocker Communications to bring Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to residents and businesses in the Massachusetts town. The contract with Crocker is not indefinite, however, and the city has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services on the network. Responses are due August 15, 2016.

According to the RFP, the ISP selected will have an exclusive agreement to provide services to the community as leverettnet.net. The community seeks a three-year contract and will begin on or before July 1, 2017. 

Leverett’s contract with Crocker Communications was also a three-year term, commencing in 2014. Releasing an RFP now will give community leaders eleven months to review submissions from potential providers and negotiate terms. With their own infrastructure, Leverett has the ability to take a discerning approach and explore other options from the RFP release.

RFP SCHEDULE: 

Written Questions Due: July 18, 2016 at 10 a.m. 

Answers to Questions Posted: July 25, 2016

Submission of Proposals Due: August 15, 2016 at 10 a.m.

Finalist Named: August 26th, 2016

Contract Award: September 2nd, 2016