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Iowa Knows Co-op Connectivity

Once again we return to Iowa to learn about community networks and high-speed connectivity. Home to municipal networks such as in Cedar Falls, Lenox, and Harlan, Iowa also grows publicly owned networks of a different kind - cooperatives’ networks. The Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association (WCTA) provides next-generation connectivity to rural areas, and is now upgrading infrastructure in its service area. WCTA uses Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology to provide Internet access of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Small Towns and Cities To Get An Upgrade

WCTA is now installing fiber in Forest City, home to about 4,000 people and the county seat of Winnebago County.

WCTA General Manager Mark Thoma told the Globe Gazette’s Forest City Summit newspaper, “We have to work closely with the city. Kudos to the city crew for locating (all the utilities). It’s been going very well.”

WCTA intends to install their fiber underground in Forest City and the municipal utilities department is facilitating the cooperative’s efforts by locating current utilities infrastructure. Collaborating will enable WCTA to bury their fiber without disrupting other services.

This upgrade to fiber will replace the copper lines towns served by WCTA, where members still use DSL. Customers in rural areas received an upgrade to FTTH several years ago. 

Rural Areas First

In 2011, WCTA received $19.6 million American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) award for a fiber broadband project in rural areas throughout its service territory. Half of the money was a grant, and the other half was a loan.

While finishing the fiber builds in these rural areas in 2015, WCTA automatically bumped up the speeds of all rural members. Previous top speeds of 15 Mbps jumped up to 100 Mbps via FTTH but the $65 per month subscription rate stayed the same. WCTA's fiber network speeds are symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are the same.

Cooperatives Have Annual Meetings

The WCTA 66th Annual Meeting takes place today; vaudeville performer Peter Bloedel of Minnesota will entertain the members as they decide on the future direction of the co-op. Governed by the people they serve, cooperatives should be invested in building a vibrant future for their communities. 

WCTA is just one of many cooperatives that has taken on a community network project. Last year, telecommunications co-op Wiatel began a $25 million fiber project in western Iowa. Cooperatives are proving to be a promising option in rural areas where big corporations like Comcast, Centurylink, or AT&T don't anticipate the profit margin they need for their shareholders.

To learn more about cooperatives and Internet access, visit our cooperative tag and check out the work of ILSR’s energy program: “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative” on the potential of rural electric cooperatives.

"Go West, Young ISP!" Ting Moving Into Centennial, Colorado

What do Maryland’s Westminster; Sandpoint in Idaho; Holly Springs, North Carolina; Charlottesville, Virginia; and now Centennial, Colorado, all have in common? Ting's "crazy fast fiber" Internet access.

In a press release, the Toronto Internet Service Provider (ISP) announced that as of today, it is taking pre-orders to assess demand in Centennial. The results will determine if the company will take the next step and offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to Centennial’s 107,000 residents and its local businesses. Ting estimates residential symmetrical Gigabit Internet access (1,000 Megabits per second download and upload) will cost approximately $89 per month; business subscriptions will cost about $139 per month. According to the Ting blog, they are also planning to offer a low-cost option of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical Internet access for $19.99 per month.

All Part Of The Plan

In March, the city released the results of a feasibility study and published its Master Plan, which included investing to expand the city’s existing network of more than 50 miles of dark fiber. Ting is the first provider to offer services via the infrastructure.

Once it is established that a sufficient demand exists for Ting’s symmetrical Gigabit Internet access, construction to specific areas of town will begin.

Mayor Pro Tem and District 4 Council Member Charles “C.J.” Whelan said:

“Ting Internet in Centennial will enable faster and more affordable Internet services for both residents and businesses, just as the City’s Fiber Master Plan intended. Technology, and in particular connectivity to the Internet, has become essential to everyday life, so much so that we experience withdrawals when it is not there. Data connectivity needs to be efficient and readily available, and it is at its best when it, ‘just works’ and you don’t have to think even about it. Bringing such a high level of service to Centennial is what makes this collaboration with Ting so exciting.”

"A Fine Ear"

When Centennial voters chose to reclaim local authority in 2013, they told the rest of the state they would chart their own course. They also let ISPs know that they were open to collaboration to improve local connectivity. Centennial is only one of over four dozen municipalities and counties that have opted out of the state's restrictive law, SB 152.

In a video on why Ting chose Centennial as its next city, CEO Elliot Noss pointed out the strong election results of referenda in which Centennial and other Colorado communities chose to reclaim local authority. “Clearly, the state of Colorado has a fine ear for better, faster, Internet.”

Watch the video here:

Medina County Aims to Be Mecca of Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 220

Medina County has built a fiber network to connect its core facilities and leases its fiber to multiple ISPs to improve connectivity in its communities. David Corrado, CEO of the Medina County Fiber Network, joins us to discuss their approach on Community Broadband Bits episode 220.

We discuss how the Port Authority became the lead agency in building the network and the challenges of educating potential subscribers on the benefits of using a full fiber network rather than the slower, less reliable connections they were used to.

Medina's approach allows carriers to buy lit services or dark fiber from the county network. And as we have seen elsewhere, the biggest challenge can be getting the first and second carriers on the network. After that, it can really pick up steam as other carriers realize they are missing out if not using it.

At the end of our interview, we added a bonus from Lisa - she just produced a short audio segment about Pinetops losing its Internet access from the city of Wilson in North Carolina.

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

This show is 27 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 mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Broadband Communities Regional Conference Fast Approaching: Oct. 18 - 20

As you say good-bye to September, consider making your way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to attend the 2016 Broadband Communities Mag Annual Conference at the downtown Radisson Blu. The event is scheduled for October 18 - 20 and you can still register online.

The Economic Development Conference Series brings Fiber For The New Economy to the "City of Lakes" as part of its Community Toolkit Program. The conference is full of information you can use if your community is looking for ways to improve local connectivity through fiber. There will be presentations on economic development, financing, and smart policies that help lay the groundwork for future fiber investment. There are also some special sessions that deal specifically with rural issues and a number of other specialized presentations and panel discussions.

Christopher will be presenting twice on Wednesday, October 19th at 10:00 a.m. and again at 11:15 a.m. with several other community broadband leaders on the Blue Ribbon panel. They will address questions and discuss important updates, review helpful resources, and describe where we need to go next.

Next Century Cities will present a special Mayor’s Panel on October 20th and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) will arrive on October 18th for a special day-long program.

Check out the full agenda online.

Key facts on the Broadband Communities’ Conference

What: “Fiber for The New Economy”

Where: Radisson Blu Downtown Hotel, 35 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402.

When: Oct. 18-20, 2016


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Photo of Lake Harriet and the Minneapolis skyline courtesy of Baseball Bugs

Davis, CA, Issues RFP For Feasibility Study: Responses Due Oct. 31

The city of Davis, California, recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a citywide fiber-optic feasibility study report. The community wants to consider the options for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Responses are due October 31.

The scope of the work includes:

The study should provide an analysis of options for engineering, constructing, provisioning and operating a high speed citywide FTTP network. It should feature both physical and network transport layer components required to pass and potentially connect every home, business, apartment complex, and institutional building within the City of Davis. The analysis should also consider future use at strategic infill and edge points around the City in order to support network growth through the coming decades. 

Davis wants firms to consider public private partnerships, the city’s network as an open access infrastructure, and Davis is only an infrastructure provider.

In early 2015, a group of citizens formed DavisGIG to encourage community leaders to move forward by establishing a Broadband Advisory Task Force and the feasibility study. In March, Davis established a task force to examine the possibility of deploying a network to serve municipal facilities, community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents. Incumbents Comcast, AT&T, Omsoft, and non-profit Davis Community Network offer a wide range of services now and there is little consistency for the city’s 68,000 residents.

The University of California Davis (UCD) is a major employer, as is the State of California. According to the RFP, there is a growing entrepreneurial culture springing up in Davis due to the presence of UCD’s research environment. The community wants to feed that growth with a citywide, future-proof, FTTH network.

Important due dates:

  • Notice of Intent to Respond:  Thursday Sept. 22, 2016
  • RFP respondent questions due: Thursday Sept. 29, 2016
  • Answers to questions distributed: Friday Oct. 14, 2016
  • Proposals Due: Monday Oct. 31, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. PT

Send questions to Diane Parro, Chief Innovation Officer: clerkweb(at)cityofdavis.org.

Cool & Connected in "Little Gig City"

Few communities in Tennessee have next-generation, high-speed connectivity, but the city of Erwin built its own network despite Tennessee’s restrictions. Now through a collaboration of federal and regional agencies, this “Little Gig City” will get assistance showing off their fiber network.

The planning assistance program, called Cool & Connected, will provide direct assistance to Erwin to develop a marketing plan for the fiber network. Cool & Connected looks to promote the Appalachian communities by using connectivity to revitalize small-town neighborhoods and encourage vibrant main streets with economic development.

Federal and Regional Collaboration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy explained the program in The Chattanoogan

“Cool & Connected will help create vibrant, thriving places to live, work, and play. We’re excited to be working with these local leaders and use broadband service as a creative strategy to improve the environment and public health in Appalachian communities.”  

Three governmental agencies have brought together the Cool & Connected program to provide planning assistance to ten chosen communities in six states near the Appalachian Mountains. Agencies partnering on the initiative are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services, and the Appalachian Regional Commission through the Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative.

The “Little Gig City” That Could

Although Erwin is a small community of 6,000 people, it expertly navigated Tennessee’s restrictive municipal networks law. The city built the network incrementally starting in 2014. By leasing out Erwin's excess electrical capacity, officials have been able to build each section without taking on any new debt. The network started serving customers in early 2015.

The scenic community is right on the eastern edge of the state, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. It may not be the first place that comes to mind for high-speed connectivity, but the Cool & Connected program will encourage young professionals, investors, and visitors to recognize the potential of the "Little Gig City." 

Wilson Forced to Turn Off Service to Pinetops

Last night, Wilson’s City Council voted to halt Greenlight Internet service to the community of Pinetops, North Carolina. City leaders, faced with the unfortunate reversal of the FCC’s preemption of harmful state anti-muni laws, felt the move was necessary to protect the utility. Service will stop at the end of October.

No Other Solution

Before the vote City Manager Grant Goings told the Wilson Times:

“Unfortunately, there is a very real possibility that we will have to disconnect any customer outside our county. That is the cold, hard truth,” Goings said. “Without getting into the legal options that our city attorney will discuss with the council, I’ll summarize it like this: we have not identified a solution where Greenlight can serve customers outside of our county.

“While we are very passionate about reaching underserved areas and we think the laws are atrocious to prevent people from having service, we’re not going to jeopardize our ability to serve Wilson residents.”

When H129 passed in 2011, it provided an exemption for Wilson, which allows Greenlight to serve Wilson County. The bill also states that if they go beyond their borders, they lose the exemption. North Carolina’s priorities are clearly not with the rural communities, but with the big corporate providers that pushed to pass the bill.

After Wilson leaders took the vote, Christopher commented on the fact that they have been put in such a difficult position:

"It is a travesty that North Carolina is prioritizing the profits of the big cable and telephone companies above the well-being of local businesses and residents. The state legislature needs to focus on what is good for North Carolina businesses and residents, not only what these powerful lobbyists want."

Economic Progress Grinds To A Halt

Vick Family Farms, highlighted in a recent New York Times article, is only one Pinetops business that faces an uncertain future. The potato farm invested in a new packing plant that requires the Gigabit connectivity they can only get from Greenlight. Incumbent Centurylink has explicitly stated that is has no intention to upgrade infrastructure in a community of only 1,300 people.

In a letter to Governor McCrory, Mayor Burress rightly lays the blame on the shoulders of the state. “In effect,” he says, “the state of North Carolina is turning off our Gigabit entry to the 21st century global knowledge economy.”

He also describes how Gigabit connectivity to rural Pinetops, brightened their future in a number of ways:

“The economic future of my rural community improved immediately when we gained access to Wilson’s broadband service. Compared to what we had been receiving from the incumbent, access to Greenlight services was like being catapulted from the early 1990s into the 21st century. Our small businesses and residents have saved hundreds of dollars and significantly increased their productivity because of the reliable and super fast Greenlight speeds. Our town commissioners also began planning a new economic development strategy, because as a Gigabit fiber community we became newly competitive in the region for attracting creative class and knowledge workers from Greenville and Rocky Mount and the new jobs created by the Rocky Mount CSX distribution hub.”

The Pinetops Board of Commissioners passed a resolution after the Wilson vote, calling on the North Carolina General Assembly to repeal H129. Wilson Energy will still use the fiber connections to Pinetops homes but customers will not have the option to use the infrastructure for connectivity. Nevertheless, if there are future changes in North Carolina laws that remove the state barriers, Pinetops could once again be served by Wilson’s Greenlight.

Bigger Than Wilson

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit made their decision to reverse the FCC's ruling on the anti-muni laws, their decision immediately harmed the community of Pinetops. Their decision, however, reaches to every rural community where the big Internet Service Providers don't offer the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity needed in the 21st century.

In the words of Wilson's City Manager:

“This is bigger than Wilson. This is about the rural areas, particularly in eastern North Carolina, because the majority of the area does not present enough profitability to attract the private-sector investment,” Goings said. “As a community, a state and frankly as a nation, we need to find ways to connect these rural communities, and our city council believes strongly that our state officials should focus on being part of the solution instead of constructing barriers to prevent communities from being served.”

Madison, Wisconsin, Gets Serious About Municipal Fiber

The City of Madison, Wisconsin is one step closer to constructing a citywide municipal fiber network after obtaining the results from a broadband feasibility study. The consulting firm hired in December 2015 recently completed the study and made it available to the city’s Digital Technology Committee and the public.

The report recommends Madison build an open access dark fiber network and engage a partner to offer services to subscribers via the infrastructure. Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Alabama, use the same approach with partners Ting and Google Fiber. Madison’s network would build on the existing Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN), a smaller fiber network that was funded with stimulus dollars through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It connects public institutions such as the University of Wisconsin, Dane County, hospitals, K-12 schools, and DaneNet, which is made up of 28 community groups serving low income families and seniors. 

Consultants suggest Madison retain ownership of the infrastructure in order to maintain control of the asset and the city's future connectivity. The City would fund the $150 million cost of building a dark fiber network and their private partner would contribute an estimated $62 million to connect properties. Consultants envision the partner responsible for cable to residences and businesses, network electronics, and consumer electronics, bringing the total cost for the project to approximately $212 million.

"Now here’s the key: that’s a lot of money. The report talks about how to get it and we can bond and do a lot of other things, but it basically says to make this happen, you need a private partner," said Barry Orton, a member of the Digital Technology Committee. Orton went on to say that a more specific cost estimate, including identification of partners, would be forthcoming, as soon as Spring 2017.

An Ongoing Project

While the study reveals significant interest in a municipal fiber network, city officials recognize that big corporate incumbents keep a strong hold on the state's legislative landscape.

“All they are doing is recycling customers,” said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin of big incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the feasibility study press conference.

“They aren’t stepping in, providing the kinds of service that this world needs in the next decade. Not in the next 100 years, now. And so we’re working on a considerable handicap in Wisconsin because of the success the industry lobbyists had in writing the legislation for our Legislature. But we do have the ability, which you are about to see in the report, on how we can take Madison into the 21st Century and do it rapidly.”

Madison has discussed residential broadband access for several years and in 2013 established a Digital Technology Committee to address the city’s digital divide. The committee first looked into universal wireless access, but determined an open access citywide fiber network would better fit the city’s needs. They went on to establish a fiber pilot in four low-income neighborhoods.

Open access fiber networks offer several advantages over fixed wireless models, including longevity and the potential for meaningful competition. In an open access network, multiple ISPs can compete to provide service to residents via the Infrastructure, which leads to better customer service and more affordable rates. In a fixed wireless model, a city typically contracts with one ISP.

Survey Results: The People Want Fiber

Madison’s fiber pilot program is still under construction but all eyes are on the feasibility study. While pilot programs are a good way to obtain data about the interest in a community, Madison may not need to wait for data to begin pursuing a municipal fiber network.

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The study commends the pilot program for its role in promoting resident trust in the city as an infrastructure provider, but the survey results suggest demand for citywide fiber access already exists.

While most respondents report they have access to the Internet through a wired connection at home (89 percent) or through a cellular device (77 percent), those numbers drop significantly for low-income respondents: 24 percent of households making $24,000 or less have no Internet access at all.

As for willingness to choose a high-speed connection, the majority of residents would be willing to switch from what they have (cable or DSL) if the price were under $50 per month, even with a one-time hook up fee of up to $250.

Moving Ahead

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration turned down $23 million in federal funding to improve Internet access, citing “too many strings attached” to the grant. More recently, the state made $1.5 million available to incumbent ISPs to expand service in rural areas; they claim funding will improve service for about 8,500 households. Given their track record of unfulfilled promises, Wisconsinites aren't holding their breath.

Some federal funding for fiber is available, and Barry Orton suggested that Madison expects more will be available after the 2016 election. “We might be, next spring, shovel-ready for whatever federal money is possibly available for cities to pursue these kinds of things,” said Orton in the feasibility study press conference.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Mayor Soglin. “We’re going to have to deal with the cumbersome burdens created by State legislation, which is designed to protect existing companies and keep us away from doing this. But it will actually introduce real competition, not to mention a level of service imagined by only a handful of cities in the world.”

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at HarlanNet.com.

NYTimes Examines Sixth Circuit Reversal: Potatoes And Pinetops

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued their order on August 10th supporting the states of Tennessee and North Carolina in their challenge from an FCC decision from February 2015. Both states objected to the FCC’s decision to preempt state laws preventing municipalities from providing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via municipal Internet networks. The Appellate Court Judges reviewed the legal arguments, the precedent, and the interplay between federal authority and state sovereignty. 

The impact of their ruling will affect more than a few pages in a law school text book. Access to high-quality Internet access positively impacts real people and businesses and, as Cecila Kang captures in her recent article in the New York Times, the people who depend on it fear the outcome if their state legislators take it away.

Family Farm Fear

Kang profiles Vick Family Farms, a family potato farm in Wilson, North Carolina.  The Vick family chose to invest in a processing plant when they learned that Wilson’s Greenlight would provide the necessary connectivity. Greenlight allowed them to increase sales overseas. Now, they may lose that connection:

“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the internet service we used to have, and we can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business,” said Charlotte Vick, head of sales for the farm.

As Kang notes in her article, the FCC has no plans to appeal the decision, so battles will resume at the state level. Advocates will need to be twice as vigilant because incumbents - the only ones that come out ahead from this decision - may try to push state legislators for even tougher anti-competitive state barriers.

Pinetops: Poster Child For Good Connectivity

Kang checks in on the small town where Wilson’s Greenlight began offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Gigabit service about 14 months ago. Pinetops, a nearby community of about 1,300 people, sought help from Wilson in the hopes that Greenlight would spark economic activity in their struggling community. Centurylink, the incumbent only offered DSL, grossly inadequate for local businesses. 

When Greenlight expanded to Pinetops, the town saw the beginning of a rebirth of sorts. Now the community waits in limbo, wondering what will happen next.

Kang introduces readers to Tina Gomez:

Tina Gomez, a Pinetops resident, quickly saw Greenlight’s benefits. She recently got a telework job with General Electric, which requires reliable high-speed internet service to run a customer service software program. Ms. Gomez, 37, also started online courses in medical billing and coding. Before subscribing to Greenlight, finding telework was a challenge because the existing home internet service was too slow, she said.

Now the political squabble over broadband may hurt her livelihood. Mark Gomez, Ms. Gomez’s husband, said they would move from Pinetops to Wilson when their broadband service was disconnected.

“We can’t stay if the basic services we need aren’t here,” Ms. Gomez said.

Beyond The Courtroom

Executive Director of Next Century Cities Deb Socia summed it up when she told Kang:

“This is about more than North Carolina and Tennessee...We had all looked to the F.C.C. and its attempt to pre-empt those state laws as a way to get affordable and higher-quality broadband to places across the nation that are fighting to serve residents and solve the digital divide.”