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Highlands, North Carolina, Learns To Fish With Altitude Community Broadband

Highlands is a small community of less than 1,000 residents located in the Nantahala National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains. Along the western tip of the state, Highlands faces the same problem as many other rural communities - poor connectivity. In order to bring high-quality Internet access to residents and businesses, Highlands has implemented a plan to deploy city-owned Internet network infrastructure.

A Connected Escape Up In The Mountains

Highland entertains a large number of summer tourists who flock to its high altitude to escape summer heat and humidity. Summer visitors can fill the city’s six square miles and surrounding area with up to 20,000 people. The city operates a municipal electric utility along with water, sewer, and garbage pick up. 

To round off the list of offered services and bring better connectivity to the community, Highlands created the Altitude Community Broadband. In January, the Town Board authorized to borrow $40,000 from its General Fund and $210,000 from its Electric Enterprise Fund to deploy and launch the new service. The loan will be repaid with revenue from the new service.

The town has long-term plans to offer both Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless service to residents and businesses in the downtown area. Fiber is already available in limited areas within Highlands proper; pricing is available on a case-by-case basis. The landscape is rugged, so residents outside of the city may not be able to transition to FTTH, reported a December HighlandsInfo Newspaper, but the fixed wireless access is still an affordable and workable option in a place considered a poor investment by large providers.

Residential options for Altitude Wireless Internet Access are:

  • Basic (Just give me Internet): 4 Megabit per second (Mbps) [download] ... $34.99
  • Better (Supports some streaming video): 10 Mbps [download] ... $39.99
  • Video Streaming (Comes with free Roku): 25 Mbps [download]... $59.99
  • Extreme (Everyone in my home is connected. Comes with free Roku): 50 Mbps [download]... $119.98

Subscribers can also sign up for the $9.99 per month “carefree in home Wi-Fi”, which is a service in which the utility installs and maintains the customers wireless router, insuring all devices connect and function properly.
There is also the option to pay an additional $9.99 per month for additional static IP addresses. Installation is free.

Altitude Community Broadband's website also promises something you NEVER get from Comcast, CenturyLink, or any of the other big boys:

Customer speed is determined at time of installation. Customer will not pay for unattainable speeds.

Recently, the Highlander ran an update from Mayor Patrick Taylor who reported that demand for the Wi-Fi service throughout Highlands was so intense, installations had fallen behind. The Town Board decided to hire two more technicians to tackle the long list of people requesting installation.

Locals Can Fix It, If We Let Them

Highlands’s elected officials reflect the self-reliant attitude of this small town who have decided to solve their problem themselves. In a March article to the Highlands News, Mayor Taylor wrote to report that the Appellate Court was considering the case between the FCC and the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga. Taylor wrote:

Overturning the FCC broadband ruling would be a setback for small towns languishing in the digital desert. It is not just a matter of economic development. Upon further study and discussion with our consultants, I now view it more as as a matter of economic and community survival. Either a community will have unlimited broadband capacity or it will wither and dry upon the economic vine.

Nationally some 200 small-town governments are doing exactly what Highlands is doing. State legislators this past session changed the sales tax distribution formula so poor communities could receive more sales tax revenue for economic growth. I have a suggestion: Don’t create laws that obstruct the development of broadband networks in these underserved communities. It is counterproductive to their economic development. Instead, why not allocate funds to bring broadband to these isolated areas? What’s that proverb about ‘give a man a fish’?

Palo Alto, CA, and Pikeville, KY, Release RFIs

Two new Requests for Information (RFI) were recently released in Palo Alto, California, and Pikeville, Kentucky. 

Pikeville, Kentucky

Pikeville is open to both public ownership and Gigabit service via privately owned infrastructure. This community of approximately 7,000 residents wants Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) for businesses, community anchor institutions, municipal facilities, and residents. The regional Appalachian Mountain community, with many jobs lost due to the shrinking coal industry, is turning to connectivity as a way to spur economic development.

Pikeville’s RFI describes how service from existing providers is expensive and "sporadic." This RFI calls for a partner that will help the community develop an open access, affordable, financially sustainable network. In drafting the RFI, Pikeville’s officials made sure to note that low-income residents will not be left behind; bringing this asset to disadvantaged residents is a priority.

The city is the county seat of Pike County and home to a number of colleges as well as several large healthcare facilities. City, county, and federal government facilities are also located in Pikeville and need better connectivity. In 2015, the city obtained a $5 million grant for technology-based training and degree programs for residents in the area. A $1 million grant supplied funding for a Broadband Technology Center in Pikeville. Now the city needs fast, affordable, reliable Internet network infrastructure to complement the Center and to move the local workforce toward more information based industries.

Important Dates:

  • Letter of Intent Due: May 23, 2016
  • Questions Due: May 25, 2016
  • Final RFI Submissions Due: June 3, 2016

The city’s website has more information and details.

Palo Alto, California

Palo Alto is a Silicon Valley city of 67,000 residents; daytime workers coming into the community swell the population to approximately 125,000. Incumbents include Comcast and AT&T who have intimated they might be interested in bringing fiber to the city, but have yet to act. Community leaders are exploring all options with this RFI.

The community has a network of dark fiber serving commercial customers and the public school system. In fact, Palo Alto has experience with providing utility services, as it currently brings municipal electric, gas, water, and wastewater services to the community.

The RFI calls for partners, private or non-profit, to develop a Gigabit per second (Gbps), open access network in the community for every household, business, and institution. Palo Alto is willing to consider either publicly owned or privately owned infrastructure.

As the RFI notes, Google Fiber is still considering Palo Alto as another location for its fiber network. City officials want respondents to consider the implications, should Google Fiber decide to build and operate within the community and to address the possibility in their RFIs.

Important Dates:

  • Letter of Intent Due: May 27, 2016
  • Questions Due: June 3, 2016
  • Final RFI Submissions Due: June 24, 2016

Get more details on the city website.

Ozarks Electric To Bring Gig to Arkansas and Oklahoma

Ozarks Electric Cooperative has a plan to bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.

Fast, Affordable, Reliable Connectivity At Last

OzarksGo, a wholly owned subsidiary of the electric co-op, will provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service with symmetrical speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second. The fiber network will cost $150 million to build over the next six years.

ArkansasOnline and local news station KSFM reported on the future network. The residential FTTH service will have no data caps and OzarksGo will offer additional services, such as telephone and video. At the end of the project, all co-op members will have access to the network's services.

According to the FCC 2016 Broadband report, 25 percent of all Arkansas residents don't have access to broadband (defined as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload). In Oklahoma, the FCC puts the numbers higher at 27 percent. Rural areas are even higher with 48 percent lacking in Arkansas and 66 percent missing out in Oklahoma. Considering the data collection process depends on self-reporting by ISPs, those numbers are considered low. The number of households that do not have access to federally defined broadband, especially in rural areas, is higher.

Soon though, these Arkansas and Oklahoma residents will have access to fast, affordable Internet access. General manager for OzarksGo Randy Klindt, who previously worked on Co-Mo Electric Cooperative's FTTH network, explained in the video below that the price for a Gigabit will be less than $100, which is an entirely opt-in service.

Ozarks Electric Cooperative serves about 71,000 customers, including businesses. Since the service area is so large, OzarksGo will build the network incrementally over the next six years. Each phase will cost between $25 and $35 million - for a total of around $150 million. This fall, they will begin construction on the first phase.

Fiber for the Electric Side

The network will also monitor the electric system by connecting substations and offices, improving efficiency. The co-op recently received approval for a rate-increase for rising costs in the electric system; the fiber network will help manage those electric costs.

Monitoring the electric system with a fiber network can shorten or eliminate outages, and this reduces electricity rates over time. For instance, the fiber network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, brought the city's electric rates 5 percent lower than they would have been without the fiber smart grid. Alyssa Roberts, a spokesperson for the co-op, told ArkansasOnline that the fiber system is expected to pay for itself through cost-savings on operations and maintenance.

Fairlawn Focuses on Citywide Gig Infrastructure - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 201

On the outskirts of Akron, just south of Cleveland, the community of Fairlawn is building a citywide wireless and fiber optic network using an interesting model. Most of the citywide municipal Internet networks in the U.S. have been built by communities with a municipal electric power company. Fairlawn has no such utility, not even a water utility. So they have partnered with another Ohio company, Extra Mile Fiber.

This week, Deputy Director of Public Service Ernie Staten joins us for episode 201 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss their approach and goals.

Fairlawn is building a carrier grade Wi-Fi and fiber-optic network, financed by municipal bonds. They will own the network and are focused first on generating benefits for the community and providing essential infrastructure rather than making sure every dollar of the network is repaid solely by revenues from network services. We also discuss how they structured the revenue-sharing arrangement with Extra Mile Fiber.

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

Parks Property Right-of-Way Refusal Slows FTTH In Minneapolis

Minneapolis is proud of its parks and trails and the City of Lakes has nurtured its jewel by fiercely protecting city parklands. The policy is effective but causing a bit of a headache for local Internet Service Provider, US Internet as the company deploys a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in Minneapolis.

The boulevards in front of some houses are Minneapolis parkland and the Parks and Recreation board recently voted down US Internet’s request to use those boulevards for conduit for its underground network. Now, homes bordering lakes and parkland will have to wait longer than their neighbors for FTTH. The situation illustrates one more challenge facing new entrants: right-of-way issues.

No Alternatives Available

US Internet explained in December that they had no alternatives to the boulevards. They can't use Minneapolis' narrow alleys, which are too cramped to safely use the boring equipment for installing underground conduit and fiber. The hard surface of the alleys prevents winter access for maintenance.

Aerial networks are not an option either. The current utility poles are under the control of Comcast, CenturyLink, and Xcel and the city will not allow any more aerial installations. There’s only so much space on a utility pole.

Is All Parkland the Same?

Right now, the park's boulevards do not have a separate classification and are treated the same as all other parkland. Although the Minneapolis parks need money for renovations, the Park Board decided not to leverage boulevard access for money. Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn explained to the community newspaper Southwest Journal:

“We have to be careful of the precedent we set…  The purposes of our procedures are first and foremost to protect parkland.” 

How to use public land for the public good can be a difficult balancing act. The Park staff is now working to find possible solutions.

Residents who want FTTH but whose homes are located along park property are waiting. Resident Julie Stenberg signed up for US Internet in part because she knows that lack of FTTH will negatively impact her property values. She told the Journal:

She said it’s frustrating — no one is picnicking on the boulevard in front of her house, and the six-foot strip of grass looks no different than her neighbors’ fiber-ready boulevards around the corner.

“It seems absurd,” she said. “Everybody on our block except three of us have access.”

For more on US Internet's project and the company, check out Community Broadband Bits episode #194; Chris interviewed co-founder Travis Carter.

Spencer, Iowa, Keeps Building

This month, Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) will continue to expand the town’s fiber network. The steady incremental build will bring better Internet access to residents, business, and municipal facilities in the northwest Iowa town.

Incremental Approach

The Spencer Daily Reporter wrote about how SMU is connecting more residents with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) one step at a time. The municipal utility broke the project into four phases.

Phases I and II included 2,700 homes and businesses. Phase III, which begins this month, will impact more than 1,100 homes and businesses. Phase IV will finish extending FTTH service to the rest of the city.

The project will replace the existing telecommunications infrastructure installed in the late 1990s. Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities described the network's history in our Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2012.

Evolving Needs, Changing Technology

Spencer Municipal Utilities marketing and community relations manager, Amanda Gloyd, said to the Spencer Daily Reporter:

"Just like internet service has evolved from dial up to digital service lines and cable modem, fiber will give customers the next level of service to continue to improve the way they live, work, and play and we are continuing to build out this service throughout the community of Spencer."

Spencer, like many other small towns, chose to invest in Internet network infrastructure so residents and businesses in this rural area could get fast, affordable, reliable services. Subscribers appreciate the excellent customer service that comes with their local, publicly owned network.


Before We Leave

In keeping with an Internet tradition, we want to mention Spencer's other sensation, Dewey the library cat. The little orange fluff-ball ended up in the public library's drop-box in 1988, and he was adopted by the library staff as "supervisor of staff." Dewey Readmore Books went on to become the publicity darling of the library cat tradition. He was featured in cat magazines, documentaries, and (of course) books.

Even though Dewey has passed on, cute cat videos will live forever, and Spencer's awesome FTTH will help keep his memory alive.

Photo of Dewey courtesy of the Spencer Public Library

Digital Northwest: What's Working?

Next Century Cities recently hosted "Digital Northwest," a summit for regional broadband leaders. Leaders from member cities all over the country gathered together to learn from one another and discuss digital inclusion, models for success, partnerships, and much more. 

Chris led a panel of mayors and city council leaders from cities with well-known municipal networks in a discussion of their networks and how their communities have benefitted. 

The panel featured: 

  • Mayor Jill Boudreau, Mt. Vernon, WA
  • Mayor Wade Troxell, Fort Collins, CO
  • City Council President Jeremy Pietzold, , Sandy OR
  • Councilmember David Terrazas, Santa Cruz, CA

Westfield To Widen Whip City: FTTH Pilot A Hit

Another pilot program is evolving into greater things.

Whip City Fiber, the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network deployed by Westfield Gas & Electric (WG+E) in Massachusetts, announced in April that it has chosen three more neighborhoods for network expansion. Residents in the target neighborhoods are invited to sign-up by May 15th for one month’s free service. WG+E offers symmetrical 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) service for $69.95 per month for residents and $84.95 per month for commercial subscribers. Wi-Fi routers are included; there is no charge for installation and no contracts. 

Whip City Fiber only offers Internet access but like other municipalities opting out of video services, they see the trend toward Internet TV:

"This is not TV. But what we see is a lot of cord cutters that are streaming programming on Netflix, Hulu and Apple TV," [WG+E marketing and customer service manager Sean Fitzgerald] said. "The only thing missing are sports channel and those are coming around."

Expanding Use Of Fiber In Westfield

A Berkman Center report on nearby Holyoke Gas and Electric referenced Westfield’s recent pilot project. WG+E began using fiber-optic connections to monitor substations and municipal facilities, including schools and administrative buildings, about 20 years ago. The community also has a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), the entity responsible for owning and operating a municipal fiber network, and used the fiber infrastructure to provide Internet access to Westfield’s municipal facilities and local businesses for the past ten years.

In February, WG+E announced that it would expand the network beyond the pilot area and encouraged residents to express their interest by signing up. It was through those sign-ups, in part, that the utility determined these first expansions. According to WG+E General Manager, choosing the target area was no easy task:

“It was difficult to decide where to build next given the strong enthusiasm shown throughout many areas of the city. Unfortunately, we can’t build everywhere at once.” Howard said. “Our priority is to bring the service to as many people as possible.”

New Details on Possible FTTP Network in Holland, MI

In March, we wrote about a prospective municipal fiber network project in the western Michigan city of Holland. Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) began a pilot test in January, offering gigabit speed services to three commercial buildings in the city via a system of dark fiber cable that the city has owned for more than two decades.

Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) has since released a study that details options for a citywide municipally owned Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. Although the study is only a first step toward developing a final business plan for the network, it gives significant insight into the city’s plans for the project.

Prospective Network Footprint and Business Model

In the first option, the city could invest $63.2 million to add nearly 500 miles of fiber lines to the city’s existing fiber infrastructure to create a municipal FTTP network for the entire HBPW service area. The new network would reach all of the homes, businesses, and municipal facilities in Holland and in neighboring communities that fall within the HBPW’s service area.

The second option suggests a $29.8 million investment on a fiber network with a smaller FTTP footprint that would provide gigabit speed fiber connections to all premises within the Holland city limits.

According to the study, the city prefers a “hybrid open access” business model in which Holland would provide retail services while also preserving its current open access model. The study also discusses potential FTTP models the city could consider, including one in which the city serves as the network’s sole ISP as well as several different potential public-private partnership (PPP) models that have been successful in other cities.

The study suggests that the city can finance the larger of the proposed network projects with a combination of bonds and loans. The study assumes a 39.6 percent take rate

Faster Speeds, Better Rates

The fastest connectivity customers in Holland can get from the existing city network is not competitive on speed and price with the services offered by local incumbent providers. The established network serves only commercial customers; the pilot project is the city's experiment in residential and small- and mid-sized business connectivity.


But with a newly expanded FTTP network, the city would dramatically improve options to residents and businesses. Based on their 39.6 percent take rate, consultants proposed subscription rates for 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access:

  • Residents: $80 per month
  • Small commercial service: $85 per month
  • Medium commercial services: $220 per month

The study notes an additional, one-time $820 charge to connect each premise to the network.

Opportunity for Local Collaboration?

The city of Holland may also have the opportunity to cooperate on a broader network plan with Laketown Township, a neighboring community that recently proposed creating its own municipal fiber network. Laketown Township, part of which falls within HBPW’s service area, will vote in May on a proposed $8.6 million fiber network.

"When we began developing the fiber broadband business plan, we were unaware that Laketown was also pursuing fiber for the township,” a statement from the HBPW said. “We will gladly work and meet with Laketown officials to coordinate our offerings."

Local Fiber = Local Benefits

Whatever the final decision, Holland City Council Member Brian Burch makes a powerful argument highlighting the economic and quality of life benefits for everyone who lives and works within reach of the future network:

"Like drinking water, access to information is the new public health…. Advances in information and communications technology means that education is no longer confined to the classroom and our children can become more competitive in the global economy. Like strong transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and water channels, public infrastructure allows commerce to grow and for private business to thrive…. The “backbone” of this gigabit network is currently wired, our next step is to bring this capability into homes and small businesses. By doing so, Holland can be at the forefront of the new economy and define our region with more educated residents and an even faster-growing economy."

Bloomington, Indiana May Bloom with an RFI

“The Gateway to Scenic Southern Indiana” could soon be the gateway to high-speed Internet access in Indiana.  The city of Bloomington, Indiana, has undertaken several projects and events in order to empower the community to find solutions to its connectivity problems.

The city of Bloomington issued a Request For Information (RFI) for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network on March 31, 2016. City leaders have taken this next step in order to make high-speed Internet access affordable and available to all of the city’s 80,000 people.

A Bull’s Eye: The RFI

Unlike the often-mentioned Request For Proposal (RFP), an RFI does not establish a plan of action. Instead, the RFI creates a procedure for Internet service providers (ISPs), contractors, and other companies to provide information on how they would create a network to best meet the needs of the city. The city's deadline to answer any questions from interested firms is April 28th and RFI responses are due on May 12th.

Rick Dietz spoke with us the day after the city released the RFI. Dietz is the Director of ITS for the city of Bloomington. He described how the city had come to its decision to pursue a community network. The mayor and city council hired a consultant and held a symposium on high-speed networks, before releasing the RFI.

Dietz repeated the three key components that are integral to the RFI:

  • Community-wide connectivity, to enable everyone to use the network.
  • Community-control, to ensure the network meets the community’s needs.
  • Financial sustainability to the community in the future.

Without these principles, a new network will likely not be right for Bloomington. The RFI calls for any incumbent providers, local providers, or others to describe their ideas to achieve these goals, whether through a private public partnership or not. The City has taken a number of steps to enable this process to go smoothly.

The February Symposium

In February, the city held a symposium on next-generation networks. It brought together local and national experts in fiber networks. A recording of the entire event is available on YouTube at “Bloomington Symposium on Next-Generation High Speed Networks.” Speakers included Blair Levin from Gig.U, Erin Deacon from KC Digital Drive, and several others who described how Bloomington would benefit from a fiber network.


Throughout the event, city leaders and community members learned much about the opportunities for high-speed Internet access in Bloomington. Mayor John Hamilton, a long-time advocate for better connectivity in Bloomington, ended the symposium by announcing the plans to release the RFI:

“Today is a beginning not an ending. We have a lot of work ahead -- my head is buzzing and swimming in a good way. There has been a great deal of information and energy and activity a lot depends on our doing this hard-work together.”

The RFI makes reference to several key assets, such as Bloomington Digital Underground (BDU), that the city could use as they develop the project. BDU is a system of existing city-owned conduits and fiber that could facilitate the creation of a new municipal network. 

New Century, New Approach

Back in 1999, the City Council and the Mayor’s Office began to create a comprehensive plan to install fiber-optic cable and conduit throughout the city’s rights-of-way. Whenever the city begins a construction project, such as improving roads or sewers, they add extra conduit for future fiber-optic cables.

BDU also led to the construction of a fiber-optic ring around the center of Bloomington. It connects the main city buildings as well as some schools. In fact, the city installed more fiber than then needed in order to make extra capacity available to private entities or for future projects, such as the one envisioned in the RFI.

Confidence and Optimism

With the RFI finally released, the idea as suggested by the BDU project, now moves one step closer to reality. As Mayor Hamilton reminded the audience at the beginning of the symposium in February:

“We do not have the digital network we need right now, and we certainly don't have the network we will need in 10 years. For 200 years, we've faced the future with confidence and optimism, and we should do the same now.”