Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for episode 102 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Vic Zimmerman on a local fiber partnership in Monticello, Illinois. Listen to this episode here.
Vic Zimmerman: Five years from now, we'll look back and realize what an awesome community asset that these four entities went together to insure was brought to Monticello.
Liza Gonzalez: Hi there, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, brought to you by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzales.
There is a new partnership in Monticello, Illinois: the school district, the Allerton Public Library, the city, and Piatt County are joining forces to improve local connectivity. A few years ago, the community learned that a private company was installing a fiber line through the community for mobile wireless purposes. They approached them and proposed a mutually beneficial arrangement, to create savings for all parties. Their network has recently connected to the public schools, eliminating the need for the district to lease multiple T1 lines. They now save public dollars and get the connectivity they need. The remaining entities will likely be connected by the end of the summer. Monticello is one of an increasing number of stories we encounter in which public entities, realizing the strength of collaboration, band together to create new opportunities.
Chris caught up with Vic Zimmerman, Superintendent of Monticello's Community Unified School District, Number 25.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm speaking with Vic Zimmerman, Superintendent for the Monticello schools in Illinois. Welcome to the show.
Vic Zimmerman: Glad to be a part of it.
Chris: We learned about your interesting approach to connecting the schools and anchor institutions over a Google Alert, and didn't know much about the Monticello schools beforehand, or the region. So perhaps you can start by telling us a little bit about what that area is like in Illinois.
Vic: Monticello is located in just about the center of Illinois. We're halfway between Champaign, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is, and Decatur, Illinois, where the worldwide headquarters of Archer Daniels Midland is located. We're a rural school district. We've got about 5,000 students in our town. We serve about 8,000 residents from Monticello. We're the county seat of Piatt County, and, you know, our main business is agriculture.
Chris: And one of the things that we've learned is that you had a situation where you didn't have super slow access in your schools, but it wasn't meeting your needs. Can you tell us a little bit about how the schools were connected before you ended up engaging in this fiber network?
Vic: Well, you know, school districts across the country increase their reliance on technology for all kinds of reasons, including, you know, curriculum and instruction for students, but also, you know, research for teachers. And then a lot of web-based applications for, you know, finances and HR and those types of things. And we really needed a much broader Internet connection. We had about 170 megabits to our school district. But it was coming over four different, you know, wires, so to speak. So it was -- we were never actually able to get 170 at any one time. It was, you know, 40 here, or 50 there. That's not terrible, but it was kind of all cobbled together, but it didn't work out very well. So we were looking for an alternative, to try to get it all from one place.
Chris: Right. And one of the things you did was the same thing that I think every school district or local government does, which is to first reach out the existing providers and say, hey, you know, we could use a better connection. When are you going to deliver it? What kind of a response did you get?
Vic: Well, that's exactly what we did. And what they told us was, well, it'll be within the next six months. And then, you know, when I talked to them 12 months later, well, it will probably be in the next six months. And then, you know, 12 months later, well, it'll probably be in the next year. It just never happened. You know, I understand that. I mean, we don't have a huge market for Internet connectivity in our town. You know, the big players are, you know, the school, the library, the city, and, probably, to a little bit lesser extent, the county. We do have some businesses that would be interested in high-speed Internet and wide broadband. But when it comes to, are you going to make a lot of money by bringing fiber to our town, I can understand why we weren't at the top of the priority list for some of the big companies.
Chris: Right. And just to specify, I know Illinois has a number of really good, locally-owned private companies, and some great co-ops. And this was, in particular, two of the more national companies that were, you know, "hoping" to bring fiber in, they said, but actually not getting the job done. But then, you learned about this really great fiber network that was going to be running right through town, and you made a deal with them, which I found really intriguing. Can you walk me through that?
Vic: Well, we got wind that a company out of another small town -- So, the company was called Metro Communications, out of Sullivan, and they're business plan is to provide fiber for cell phone towers. So that was their basic business plan. And they were completing a ring that extended almost through the entire portion of the center of Illinois, and coming right down -- right through Monticello, to connect to Interstate highway 72. And we got wind of that, and met with Zak Horn from Metro, and said, hey, we know you're coming through town. We need a fiber Internet connection for our entities, and, you know, for our businesses in town. We know that's not really what you do for a living. But we'd like to, you know, quote, "get in the trench with you." Which meant, you know, while you're installing your fiber Internet in a trench, we'd to put a couple conduits in there along with you, and pay half. So, he was going to come through anyway. So it was a good deal for him. And then the, you know, from his point of view, the fact that there were going to be four governmental entities working together to try to do something great for the city of Monticello and Piatt County, he wanted to be involved in.
Chris: And let's dig into those four entities. Who are they -- all the entities that are involved?
Vic: Well, the City of Monticello, Piatt County, Allerton Library, which is the library in Monticello, and Monticello schools.
Chris: And so each of those now has some kind of joint share of this conduit into which -- I presume you've put in fiber, because you have a network that's running now. How do you handle that?
Vic: Well, we put together, you know, and intergovernmental agreement, which allowed us to work together, eventually make a purchase of the system through Metro. So Metro installed the system and then, when it was all said and done, they basically sold it to the four entities. So, we all had a 25% share. And Metro's plan was just to head through the center of town. But we told them we needed to spider off to the schools, and spider off to a couple of places that the county needed to get to. And the city, and the library. So, you know, it was a little more than Metro was planning to install. But they went ahead and did the work, and then sold the whole backbone system to us. So we ended up putting two inch-and-a-half conduits in the ground, because it didn't really cost us that much more to add that second conduit, and it's empty. But the other one is -- we've run fiber -- there's fiber in the other conduit. And the school district is hooked up to the fiber. And we're working on getting the other three entities getting themselves hooked up. It's going very well.
Chris: So when you look at this, in terms of the economics of it, I think you -- the combined four entities -- put in something like $300,000 of capital cost. Is that right?
Vic: Yeah. Yup.
Chris: And so, do you look at that in terms of it's the cost of getting better access to the schools? Or are you -- do you see a payback period, relative to you were previously paying? Are you paying less now?
Vic: Well, since we're not really a business, you know, we really didn't run the numbers on ROI, or anything like that. But we -- when I looked at it as a school district, I knew that we needed to have access to the faster Internet. And when it's all said and done, we were paying about $3500 for 170 megabits. And now I'm paying $1800 for 300 megabits. And then as the amount of Internet connectivity increases, for the same money -- $3500 a month -- I'd probably be able to get almost a gigabit of Internet access, you know, in the next couple years. So the -- you know, the monthly cost for the amount of bandwidth I can get is definitely a bargain. In regard to the overall capital outlay, you know, if you amortize that over the course of 10 years, you know, it's a great deal, not just for the school district but.... You know, we have an interest in the school district of bringing economic development opportunities to our town. And, you know, to be involved in a project that brings fiber Internet to Monticello -- I think, for the school to be involved in that, you know, it says a lot, in regard to -- we're not just interested in what's best for the school district. But we understand that what's best for the town is also great for the school district. And the same could be said from the city and the county's point of view. You know, they understand that, between schools and healthcare, they're two of the best things that Monticello has going for it, along with, you know, just the tradition of being a safe, small town. And they understand that if it's good for the schools, it's also going to be good for the city and the county. So, it was a win-win situation all the way around. And then when you look at the library, of course, you know, their needs for Internet connectivity are only going to get larger and larger as time goes on.
Chris: Right. One of the things you won't have to worry about anymore is being hit with an unexpected rate hike. And that's worth a whole lot right there.
Chris: So, you recently -- actually, we saw an example of how you are dedicated toward making sure that this fiber will ultimately impact local businesses, and improve the service for residents, because, as I understand it, you had an opportunity to work with someone who would sort of manage the fiber but was not interested in expanding it at all. And you chose to wait and try and find a partner that would be interested in expanding that, and making sure it benefited everyone in the community. What happened there?
Vic: So we're not Internet service providers. We're, you know, government administrators and school people and city people, and those types of things. Of course, we were hopeful from the outset that we would be able to find somebody that would be able to provide -- provide maintenance to our system, and then expand the network, to provide opportunities for businesses to get connected on this fiber. And also, you know, pay us a monthly fee for the opportunity to do that. It was kind of like the Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn story, where he got somebody to pay him to whitewash the fence, because he was a smooth talker.
Chris: That's right.
Vic: Well -- so we put out a couple requests for proposals. The first one, we only had one company that was interested in the project, and we weren't able to work out the details that we were hopeful for. So we went out again. We revised our RFP and kind of made it a little more general. And then we had, I think, five or six different entities put in proposals. You know, some of them were just interested in being able to access the Internet and being able to sell off bandwidth. Some of them were interested in the maintenance piece. Some of them were interested in expanding the whole network out to fiber-to-the-home and those types of things. But we didn't ever find the perfect fit. So we just decided to sign up with Metro, which was the company that was coming through, to do our maintenance of our system. Once you have fiber in the ground, there's really not a huge amount of maintenance that you have to do -- that's the expectation. But, you know, somebody comes along and cuts the fiber, then we'll have to get that fixed. But, you know, when it's all said and done, we've got the wheels on the car, and the car starts up, and it runs. So we're able to show that. And now the next step is to now go out and find a company that's willing to lease fibers from us for a monthly amount, and then they'll be able to have a business that sells fiber connectivity to our other businesses in town. And maybe eventually take a route that would include fiber-to-the-home for residents who would be interested in something like that.
Chris: Excellent. Is there anything else that we should be aware of, in terms of how this network has benefited the community?
Vic: Five years from now, we'll look back and realize what an awesome community asset that these four entities went together to insure was brought to Monticello. We understand it because we've been involved in it from the beginning. We know that if we hadn't have "jumped in the trench" with Metro that the likelihood that any of us would have access to fiber right now is probably pretty small. The widget that we were working with -- the four of us -- was fiber Internet. Bur probably -- and I've said this before, to the group -- that the coolest about it is just that four governmental entities got together and stuck with it for two years to make it happen. I mean, there was never a time where it was really going to fall apart. But, you know, we're a small rural community. We all know each other. We all understand that, you know, what matters to the school matters to the city, and what matters to the library matters to the county, and all those types of things. So, in this case, the issue was fiber Internet, but probably the best part about it all was that, you know, four government entities got together and made it happen. So that's probably what we're most proud of.
Chris: Excellent. That's an inspiration for many. And I do hope that we see more local governments finding ways of working together to achieve similar ends. Thank you for coming on the show.
Vic: I really appreciate the opportunity.
Lisa: For more on the story, go to muninetworks.org and follow the "Monticello Illinois" tag. We will be sure to check in with the other public partners as they connect to their network.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on June 10th, 2014. We want to thank Valley Lodge for their song "Sweet Elizabeth," licensed Creative Commons. And thank you for listening.