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BT Brings Free Wi-Fi To New Burlington Transit Center

Burlington Telecom is teaming with Green Mountain Transit to provide free high-speed Wi-Fi to commuters and GMT employees at the new transit center, reports Vermont Business magazine. The bus transit center opened on Oct. 13.

The magazine noted:

“A reliable high speed Wi-Fi connection on the Downtown Transit Center platform will improve the customer experience, allowing passengers to use their wait time more effectively as they work, connect with friends, or download an e-book to enjoy on the ride.”  

Burlington Telecom general manager Stephen Barraclough told Vermont Business:

 “The opening of the new Downtown Transit Center is a much needed development for the many who commute to and from Burlington daily, and provides an exciting opportunity to highlight Burlington’s powerful gigabit infrastructure as an accelerator for economic, educational and community benefit.” 

Burlington Telecom joins a growing list of U.S. communities that are making free high-speed Internet connectivity available at public transit stations and airports. 

Free Wi-Fi At The City Gateway

In April 2015, we noted that LUS Fiber began sharing its municipal Gigabit network with travelers at the Lafayette Regional Airport in Louisiana. Free Wi-Fi is available at the airport supported by LUS Fiber, allowing guests to check email, post to social media, and browse the Internet.


"We know that businesses choose to come to Lafayette for a variety of reasons and many have cited our 100% fiber-optic network as one of those reasons,” said City-Parish President Joey Durel. "As a gateway to Lafayette, we want visitors to experience the ultra high speeds of a Gigabit Internet connection, from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave."

The Locals Love It

In Burlington, the Keep BT Local! Cooperative started in 2012 with a goal of transforming the troubled muni into a telecommunications cooperative and is still active and raising capital to purchase the network. In the spring, the BT Advisory Board recommended that a permanent owner should have ties to the local community

For the time being, the city is leasing the network, which is under temporary ownership of Blue Water LLC, a company that purchased the network as part of a deal hatched with CitiBank. The financial giant had sued the city for $33 million after cover-ups from a past mayoral administration cast the network into financial chaos. That agreement requires the city to find a permanent owner for the network and finalize the sale by January 2019. If the city does not find a permanent buyer of their liking, Blue Water can choose the next owner; locals fear it may be a company like Comcast.

The new Wi-Fi will give commuters a chance to taste the high-quality Internet access that Burlington residents and businesses are trying to keep under local control. The network's ownership is uncertain, but the local initiative is doing all it can to keep it from becoming just another big, faceless, unresponsive ISP.

Buses Bring Wi-Fi So Kids Can Work At Home

When Liberty County, Georgia’s school system, began a one-to-one iPad initiative, they were making a positive impact in technology readiness for local school kids. After a year of the program, however, district officials determined that lack of Internet access at home was so prevalent, students ran the risk of falling behind. To fix the problem and allow kids to work online away from school, the school district is installing buses with Wi-Fi equipment and parking them throughout the community, creating “Homework Zones.”

Taking Internet Access To The Streets

In Liberty County, approximately 60 percent of students don’t have Internet access at home, which renders school issued iPads useless at home. Access is available in libraries, when there are extended school hours, and sometimes in other public locations, but using public Wi-Fi takes kids away from home; some kids are just too young to be out at night.

Pat Millen, Co-Founder and President of Eliminate the Digital Divide, spoke with Christopher for episode #218 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He described some of the burdens associated with finding Internet access away from home, just to complete your homework:

…[T]hink about the kid staying after school in the media center of the school until the very last second that the janitor needs to lock the door so that he can do his work. Then think about the same kid walking through all kinds of weather to get to the public library and hop on one of their computers.

Think about that same kid walking home in the dark through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area...Then think about this very same kid going through the motions of walking through the rain and the dark or the heat and the sun to get to the library that's two miles from his house. Then think of him taking measure of his life's prospects. "I can't get this work done. I'm not going to be able to pass this class. My family is so poor, shouldn't I just go ahead and drop out and go try to find a job?" 

As textbooks and applications become increasingly available only online, high concentration of low-income students have no way to complete homework at home. Nevertheless, without the opportunity to use those online tools, they fall behind.


Liberty County’s 24 “Homework Zones” will be concentrated in areas where the most low-income families live; the Wi-Fi enabled vehicles will stay parked from 2:30 - 11:30 p.m. and will allow students to access educational, school-district approved websites for classroom work.

“The more technology we integrated into the curriculum, the greater the need for connectivity at home,” said John Lyles, director of transportation for Liberty County School District. “We want to ensure no student is left behind because he or she doesn’t have the tools for success.”

It's Not Just About Homework

This summer, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) solicited comments on a proposed rule to require Internet access infrastructure in all public housing, which would begin to address the problem. There are, however, a number of low-income people who do not live in subsidized housing who should have access to high-quality Internet access. Elderly people need good Internet access to stay connected to loved ones, obtain connections to healthcare professionals, and stay engaged when mobility is a challenge, There are also many working age adults who simply cannot afford Internet access. While there are a few programs that provide minimum speeds for families of low-income school children, disabled adults or the working poor with no children can’t qualify for those programs and fall into a black hole. Affordable, high-quality Internet access for all low-income individuals needs to be a priority for all of us.

Dark Fiber, Free Wi-Fi, Startups in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Missouri law has severely restricted municipal networks, but local entrepreneurs decided to create their own fast, affordable, reliable community connectivity. The City of Cape Girardeau has made new plans in its Marquette Tech District: free public Wi-Fi and a tech-hub for startups. Although the city is already home to more than 100 large employers, city officials want to also encourage small businesses and entrepreneurship. Underneath all the possibilities is publicly owned dark fiber.

The Marquette Tech District will utilize the City of Cape Girardeau’s dark fiber to connect the new tech-hub and provide free public Wi-Fi. The project hopes to bring new vitality to the Marquette Tower building, a center of the city's old economy, transforming it into a space for new technology-based companies. Local entrepreneurs have created a nonprofit to develop the project and the local Internet Service Provider (ISP) Big River Communications is on board. The city, meanwhile, owns the essential infrastructure - the fiber.

A Nonprofit Drives Development

The Southeast Missourian has followed the development of the project since its inception. From the planning process to obtaining grants, the newspaper has unraveled the complex collaborations across several institutions and levels of government.

The City of Cape Girardeau, population 40,000, has always been a regional commercial hub on the Mississippi River in southern Missouri. In the late 1920s, travelers could stay downtown at the upscale Marquette Tower hotel. More than 100 employers in the city each provide jobs to more than 100 people, including Southeast Missouri State University and several healthcare systems. Community leaders hope the new tech district will attract and retain young professionals; the university next door is an excellent resource for educating and keeping a talented tech workforce.

Local entrepreneurs realized that they could unlock the potential of the city's dark fiber. They created a nonprofit, the Marquette Tech District Foundation, to improve quality of life, accelerate economic development, and provide connectivity in Cape Girardeau. The Foundation developed a plan through an agreement with the city council and a $200,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership.

Details and Dollars

The Foundation has three main goals:

  1. Take advantage of the city’s dark fiber.
  2. Install more fiber downtown for the tech-hub.
  3. Develop free public Wi-Fi.

Downtown small businesses will also have access to affordable high-speed connections. In July, the city council approved the agreement with the Foundation for the use of the dark fiber and for the installation of a new fiber line. 

According to the agreement (July 5, 2016, Resolution No. 2995, Bill No. 16-111), the Foundation will own the hardware to “light” the fiber, but the city will own all of the fiber, including the fiber to be installed by the nonprofit. All plans and specifications must be approved by both the Foundation and the city, ensuring local control. 

The Foundation has up to two years to install the new fiber and commence the public Wi-Fi project. If the Foundation doesn’t follow through, the nonprofit will pay $25,000 to the city to install the fiber. If the Foundation fails to deliver on its promises, the city will install the fiber itself and recoup some of its expenses from the Foundation.

The entrepreneurs behind the Foundation, however, have a strong interest in completing their part of the agreement. The nonprofit's executive director is a cofounder of Codefi, a successful co-working space and tech incubator. Codefi is also an anchor tenant of the renovated Marquette Tower tech-hub. Local Internet service provider Big River Communications also agreed to provide gigabit (1,000 Mbps) Internet service to the Marquette Tower.

In early August, the Marquette Tech District received a $200,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority. The authority is a federal-state collaboration established in 2000 by an act of U.S. Congress to promote economic development in the eight state Delta Region. The funding will cover planning costs and connecting the public spaces. 

While announcing the grant, Mike Marshall, the alternate federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, spoke about the potential of the Marquette Tech District: 

"Cape Girardeau is an important economic and entrepreneurial hub for Southeast Missouri, so we are proud to make this investment in boosting digital connectivity for students, residents and businesses with fiber optic cable in the downtown area."

For more information on the Marquette Tech District, check out their video below.

Saint Louis Park is Prepared for the Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 219

Saint Louis Park, a compact community along the west side of Minneapolis, has built an impressive fiber network, a conduit system, and several deals with developers to ensure new apartment buildings will allow their tenants to choose among high speed Internet access providers. Chief Information Office Clint Pires joins me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 219.

In one of our longest episodes, we discuss how Saint Louis Park started by partnering with other key entities to start its own fiber network, connecting key anchor institutions. Years later, it partnered with a firm for citywide solar-powered Wi-Fi but that partner failed to perform, leaving the community a bit disheartened, but in no way cowed.

They continued to place conduit in the ground wherever possible and began striking deals with ISPs and landlords that began using the fiber and conduit to improve access for local businesses and residents. And they so impressed our previous podcast guest Travis Carter of US Internet, that he suggested we interview them for this show.

Clint Pires has learned many lessons over the years and now we hope other communities will take his wisdom to heart. Well-managed communities can make smart investments that will save taxpayer dollars and drive investment in better networks.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

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

This show is 40 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."

Garrett County, Maryland: Access For Anchors In The Appalachians

Garrett County is the westernmost county in Maryland. High in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain Range; winters are harsh and forest covers 90 percent of the county. Before the county deployed a fiber-optic network, high-quality connectivity was hard to come by for schools, libraries, and other community anchor institutions. By making the most of every opportunity, Garrett County has improved efficiencies for the many small communities in the region and set the stage to improve connectivity for businesses and residents.

Rural, Remote, Ready For Better Connectivity

The county is more than 650 square miles but there are no large urban centers and over time a number of sparsely populated areas have developed as home to the county's 30,000 people; since 2000, population growth has stagnated. Many of the tiny communities where businesses and residents have clustered are remote and do not have public sewer or water. These places tend to have a high number of low-income people. 

Unemployment rates are volatile in Garrett County, fluctuating with natural resources extraction industries. As the coal and lumber industries have waned, many jobs in Garrett County have disappeared. Garrett County Memorial Hospital and Beitzel industrial construction employ over 300 people and are the county’s largest employers. 

All of these characteristics make Garrett County unattractive to the large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that want to maximize investment and focus only on densely populated urban areas. Verizon offers DSL and Comcast offers cable in limited areas but many people rely on mobile Internet access and expensive satellite Internet access.

It Started With BTOP Fiber


In 2010, the State of Maryland received over $115 million in grant funding through the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP). With a matching $43 million from state and in-kind contributions, Maryland deployed the One Maryland Broadband Network (OMBN). In August 2013, the middle mile fiber-optic network was complete, stretching 1,324 miles across the state connecting 1,068 CAIs.

OMBN runs directly into Garrett County for approximately 50 miles. Since then, the county has added fiber when they have had the funds. They have not borrowed or bonded to fund deployment, but obtained a grant from the Appalachian Resource Council (ARC) to extend the fiber from OMBN and to purchase equipment to light the network. The largest expansion was funded with a $250,000 ARC grant. The County invested $250,000 of its own funds to total $500,000 for the initial investment into Garrett County’s fiber network. Since then, the county has collaborated with other entities to reduce costs and extend the network farther in a series of smaller expansions.

Getting Public Facilities Connected

BTOP funds were used to connect 32 CAIs, and the county’s efforts connected 18 more to Garrett County’s network. In addition to libraries, municipal administrative facilities, and the county hospital, all but two county schools are connected. The network also connects other public facilities, including a senior center, a local college, and a career center. Town halls across the county are also on the network and there is fiber connecting several industrial parks. In addition to connecting CAIs and public entities to the network, the county deploys wide area networks (WANs) between facilities so the larger institutions with the right personnel can manage their own internal networks.

Garrett County took an opportunistic approach to significantly reduce costs as they connected more facilities and entities. They were able to save approximately $17,000 when connecting the Airport and Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Nathaniel Watkins, Garrett County CIO of the Department of Technology and Communications (DoTCOM), told us the County Road Department dug the trenches, installed conduit, and handled all the physical plant. “I’m really cheap,” said Watkins. He’s developed a talent for collaborating with other state and county entities and staying on top of current and future projects so he can to work with other departments to cut costs.

DoTCOM funds and leads many of the projects. Two entities located in the Grantsville Outreach Center contributed 50 percent of the fiber so they could both obtain fiber connectivity. For connections to two other locations, Watkins discovered that conduit already existed to the buildings as part of the original design. DoTCOM purchased special terminated fiber and connected the facilities “for pennies on the dollar.” Another project included funds budgeted for security camera installation. By connecting that fiber project to the larger network, Watkins extended the reach of the county network at no extra cost.


Yet another project involved partnering with the state for an emergency services project that included a 700 Megahertz fiber/wireless project. Watkins’ department is “riding their coattails” and installing county fiber alongside state fiber in places where they consider it to be potentially advantageous for the future. This means no cost for trenching or burying fiber.

Ok for MOU

Garrett County has limited personnel needed to manage a fiber network. They choose to transfer ownership of public fiber to the state of Maryland and obtain a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The arrangement allows them access to the fiber without the financial burden of maintaining it; Garrett County only needs to employ one person to handle pole attachments, breaks, and other tasks. Because federal funds have paid for most of the asset and the county does not have the resources to dedicate to long-term maintenance, the system is right for them.

Better Services, Better Savings

In addition to providing connectivity by deploying the infrastructure to CAI’s, Watkins says that the county also operates as an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The benefit for customers, especially for county schools, has been two-fold: better connectivity and lower prices. When Garrett County Public Schools obtained service from large private providers, they paid a broad range of prices for many different speeds. 

Before the fiber deployment, most schools needed to lease T1 lines at an average of $400 per month per facility just to get 1.5 Mbps, in addition to paying $50 - $150 per month for Internet access. Each facility ended up paying up to $550 per month for very slow access.

Now, there are ten schools that connect to the fiber and that share the cost of single Internet connection, which is a little more than $800 per month, or about $80 per facility. That connection feeds into a central data center and provides 300 Mbps symmetrical service to the school district as a whole. Each facility then decides what speed they want to connect back to the main data system. Some choose 500 Mbps Internet access from the county for $750 per month while others purchase 250 Mbps for $500. For a nominal increase, the schools capacity now is blasting away what they used to obtain from old, outdated T1 lines. The federal program that reimburses schools for telecommunications expenses, E-rate, covers approximately 70 percent of telecommunications expenses in Garrett County. The symmetrical speeds allow fast, reliable communication between facilities and to the main Internet connection at the data center.


Connected entities also saved significantly by switching from traditional telephone lines to VoIP. The Board of Education (BOE) in Garrett County has cut telephone expenses to $9 per month per phone for unlimited calling. The BOE’s facility alone is saving $10,000 per year. DoTCOM is slowly installing VoIP in other school facilities to expand on the savings. We’ve discovered similar savings in a number of places. In Austin, Texas, school officials estimate that they have saved millions by transitioning to the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN) for Internet and telephone services.

Free Wi-Fi Is Expanding

The county is able to use the network to provide backhaul for free Wi-Fi to several public locations, including the County Courthouse and the Airport in Oakland, the Department of Utilities, and all of the County Roads' Garages. DoTCOM provides free Wi-Fi at the Adventure Sports Center International, a nonprofit recreation center in McHenry. There are two parks that are set to receive free Wi-Fi and security camera coverage, courtesy of the fiber network. Watkins wants to expand free Wi-Fi to as many locations in Garrett County as possible as a community service.

Better Business Connections In Garrett?

The county does not routinely offer connectivity to businesses but does provide services to one medical facility simply because it needs speeds that are not available from any private providers. Without high-quality Internet access from the county, the facility in Oakland would not be able to connect its facilities, which need to send data-intensive medical records to other healthcare offices and to each other. The county is “trying not to step on the toes” of the private providers while also bringing affordable, reliable connectivity to CAIs, says Watkins. Nevertheless, they are well positioned if the time comes when more businesses seek out fast, affordable, reliable connectivity from an entity they feel they can trust.


Next Project - Connecting Residents and Businesses

Garrett County has also started a new project to bring connectivity to some of the areas of the county where residents and businesses have the worst coverage or, in some cases, no Internet access at all. After years of study, they have determined that a fixed wireless solution will work best for them.

With their home-grown experience and proven strategy to cut costs through efficiency, Garrett County can certainly tackle their next challenge - ubiquitous Internet access in the far-west hills of Maryland.

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.


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."


Emmett, Idaho Sees Opportunity in New Fiber Network

“Business in the 21st century is driven by broadband.”

Those are the words of Gordon Petrie, the Mayor of the small west central City of Emmett, Idaho that is in the process of constructing its own fiber network. The Mayor and other city leaders have high hopes that the network will create economic opportunities in their city within this sparsely populated part of the country:

“Idaho is one of the least connected states in the union." Petrie said. “We intend to change that by making Emmett one of the most connected communities in Idaho. We’ll have the infrastructure to support high-tech business.”

The Buildout and Beyond

When completed, the new network will encircle the city and connect Emmett’s City Hall, its Public Safety Building, Emmett City Park (which is already providing free Wi-Fi), Public works facilities, the fire department, and the library. The city’s systems administrator said the city is timing construction of the fiber to coincide with other scheduled utility digs. Beyond these immediate plans, the city also has a five year strategy for the network that includes a goal of connecting all of the city’s businesses and its 6,500 residents to the fiber network. 

Emmett’s buildout process is similar to the strategy used in nearby Ammon, another small Idaho city that several years ago began constructing a fiber network starting with its municipal facilities. As with Emmett's proposed plan, Ammon constructed its network incrementally over a period of several years, eventually reaching the city’s business community and just now starting to connect to residents as well. 

Ammon’s example shows that when a city like Emmett takes the initiative to bring locally owned fiber infrastructure to the community, good things are likely to follow. In the coming years, Emmett can expect to see public savings, economic development, and opportunities that may enable them to connect the entire community with fast, affordable, reliable Internet infrastructure.

More “Magic” in Westminster, Maryland

In April we wrote about the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC), an innovative new educational program in Westminster, Maryland, that gives local high school students opportunities to learn new technology skills through hands-on, real world projects. After the success of the program’s first project, the MAGIC program created a temporary wireless network for a second project -- this time for the city’s annual Westminster Flower and Jazz Festival held during Mother's Day weekend.

The MAGIC program is a collaborative effort between Ting Internet and Freedom Broadband, with Ting offering networking equipment and Freedom supervising the project. Ting is the private partner and operator of the City of Westminster’s open access municipal fiber network. Freedom Broadband is the leading provider of wireless Internet in the surrounding Carroll County region.

Festivals and Fiber

The temporary network gave festivalgoers access to extremely fast, high bandwidth wireless connections that connected to Westminster's fiber network. While strolling through the festival to see local jazz musicians and sampling from hundreds of vendors offering food, flowers, and crafts, attendees were be able to wirelessly connect their phones, tablets, and other devices to the city's fiber network during the one day event.

For the program’s first “Tech Incubation” project in April, the MAGIC program’s 15 students also created and operated a temporary wireless network that the City of Westminster used at its annual Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration. These first two projects are part of a continuous series in which the students have opportunities to further expand and refine their technology knowledge.

Leveraging Municipal Fiber for Economic and Cultural Benefits

Beyond the program’s educational merits, MAGIC is also a technology incubator which challenges talented local students to explore new types of innovation to benefit Westminster's economic development objectives. The program also helps local leaders find new ways to leverage Westminster’s municipal fiber network toward cultivating a robust technology culture in the region.

Interested in learning more about the MAGIC program? Contact Jason Stambaugh, a Board member for MAGIC and for the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, at 301-514-3551 or by email at Jason.m.stambaugh(at)

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."

Pulaski, Tennessee: "A Community Investing In Itself" With Better Connectivity

Pulaski, located in the area Tennesseans describe as the southern middle region of the state, has a fiber network other communities covet. When we contacted Wes Kelley, one of the people instrumental in establishing the network, he told us that the community always wanted to be more than "just Mayberry." Rather than settle for the sleepy, quaint, character of the fictional TV town, local leaders in Pulaski chose to invest in fiber infrastructure for businesses and residents.

A Legacy That Lives On

The county seat of Giles County, Pulaski has a long history of municipal utility service. The electric system was founded in 1891, and is the oldest in the state. The city also provides municipal water, sewer, and natural gas service. The electric utility, Pulaski Electric System (PES), serves most of Giles County, which amounts to approximately 15,000 customers. PES receives power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then distributes it throughout the county.

Pulaski is now known for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, PES Energize, but the city's first adventure in providing municipal Internet access began in 1993. The city developed dial-up service and within five years, 1,500 homes were using the service. The city abandoned the dial-up service to offer Wi-Fi but then sold that system to a private company.

Preparing PES

Leaders in Pulaski had their sights on connectivity beyond the limits of Wi-Fi. In 2002, Mayor Dan Speer and Dan Holcomb, the New CEO of PES, began exploring a publicly owned fiber network. Holcomb had previously lead a Michigan utility that offered cable TV and so used his experience to help establish the PES Energize network. AT&T (BellSouth at the time) provided DSL service and Charter offered cable Internet access but neither company performed to the satisfaction of the community. In fact, Pulaski had always suffered through poor quality service from its incumbents.

When Holcomb arrived, the community engaged a consultant for a feasibility study to examine in detail the idea of a publicly owned fiber network; Holcomb, Speer, and the rest of the city's leadership were not confident about the results. Before the community moved forward, Holcomb felt it was important they carry out a customer survey and a second feasibility study. In the spring of 2003, the organization undertook a survey and used the results to ready the utility to step into its approaching role as a municipal network utility.


Ready For The Next Step

Two years later, city and utility leadership felt that they were ready and completed a second feasibility study. This time, the results suggested a better outcome if Pulaski decided to invest in a publicly owned fiber network. In the spring of 2005, Pulaski developed a business plan that was approved in March by Tennessee's State Comptroller, as required by state law. In May, the city council voted to issue $8.5 million in General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance FTTH deployment and a data center.

Kelley had worked on a similar project in Hillsdale, Michigan, and even though Holcomb had asked him to work on the Pulaski project, Kelley was reluctant. Hillsdale had not pursued a network and Kelley did not want another disappointment. Once Pulaski's utility board and city council backed the plan, he knew the project had the support to move forward. Kelley accepted a position as Chief Marketing Officer for the utility. (Kelley talks more about his experience in Pulaski, Hillsdale, and his current role in Columbia, Tennessee, in episode 189 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Check it out to learn more.)

GO bonds are not one of the three most used types of financing for municipal networks but Kelley explained why they worked well for Pulaski. When a community chooses to fund any project with GO bonds, investors have an added measure of safety because the project and the loan are backed by the full faith and credit of the community. In other words, the issuing jurisdiction can use its taxing authority to pay back the debt, if necessary. As a result, the municipality, county, or other government entity issuing the bonds obtain very low interest rates. GO bonds require that the project developed be owned by the community and funds are typically used for projects that will be used by the entire community.

People Grow The Asset

Construction started in 2006, with fiber following the path of the existing power lines - when the lines were aerial, the fiber was installed on poles and when lines went underground, the new network followed suit. PES took the same approach with street lines and drops to homes. Line construction was completed in September 2006; the utility finished its Network Operations Center in November, and began testing right away. 

PES Energize began offering residential triple-play of cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet services in January 2007 but its formal launch was not until the spring of 2007. When the network launched, it offered services at download speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 10 Mbps, and 20 Mbps. Since then, speeds have increased. High-speed Internet access, video, and telephone are available in a variety of bundles or subscribers can purchase stand-alone Internet access for $35.95 (25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload), $75.95 (50 Mbps download / 7 Mbps upload), or $100.00 (100 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload) per month.

By the time Wes Kelley left for his new position as Executive Director of Columbia Power and Water in 2012, PES Energize had achieved a 45 percent take rate. According to Mike Hollis, in charge of sales for PES Energize, the utility expands the network incrementally every year. By the end of January 2016, the network passed 5,609 homes and businesses. The utility's take rate is just under 49 percent in total with 2,729 of those properties passed subscribing to PES Energize.

According to Hollis, customers in rural areas are speeding up the expansions by footing the bill themselves. In PES' electric service area beyond the current network footprint, residents and business owners have approached the utility to ask for an estimate on the cost of expansion to their neighborhood. PES provides a figure for materials and pole attachment costs. Increasingly, these small pockets of rural neighborhoods, with nothing but dial-up or satellite, will chip in to pay for the construction. The neighborhood group cuts a check and the utility expands the network to that area.

Hollis noted that a local realtor is organizing the most recent example of a would-be subscriber funded expansion. He can't sell houses in his neighborhood where there is no high quality Internet access; homebuyers don't want houses with dial-up or satellite. He and his neighbors see the move as a necessary investment so he is leading the effort to obtain contributions from people in the neighborhood to pay for the fiber expansion.

Businesses In Mind

When PES launched, it also offered dark fiber leasing for organizations that wished to manage their own data needs. Most businesses in Pulaski purchase lit services and/or use the utility's data center. The facility housed a colocation facility, hosting services, and offsite data storage and was designed to withstand an F5 tornado.


In 2011, Speers, who had transitioned from Mayor to Executive Director of the Pualski-Giles County Economic Development Council, discussed how the network had improved functionality for local businesses in an interview with Craig Settles. Whether a local printer sending artwork to Los Angeles or a graphic artist sending catalogue material to Canada, Pulaski businesses heaved a sigh of relief when they tapped into PES Energize. Businesses today overwhelmingly choose PES Energize - 82 percent of those passed subscribe.

From the interview:

"The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, then that’s gravy.

During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have."

Looking At The Long Term

Pulaski has not experienced significant population growth since investing in PES Energize, but it has managed to avoid decline, a problem gripping similarly sized communities in the region. Tullahoma is a little over an hour away, Columbia is less than 45 minutes north; both communities offer potential employers municipal fiber connectivity. Pulaski made the investment first and can still compete for economic development opportunities in a peaceful setting.

When new businesses look for a location to open a facility where high-speed connectivity is a must, and search for a "Mayberry" to attract a quality workforce, Pulaski is on the short list because of its municipal fiber network.

Wes Kelley recognizes the long-term value of Pulaski's decision to create Internet network infrastructure. When we spoke with him for this article he reinforced what local officials and their constituents all over tell us - that the people of Pulaski knew the best course for themselves:

"It's a community investing in itself. Pulaski spent $8.5 million. They could have spent $8.5 million building a new rec center and a new pool but they didn't. They decided to put it in the air and in the ground to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years. I think that's a powerful decision but it is a local decision…local control is critically important."