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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." 

"The Big Easy" Wants I-Net Design, Releases RFP: Proposals Due Oct. 24

Last week, the city of New Orleans, through the Foundation for Louisiana (FFL), released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in its search for technical expertise to provide a fiber-optic network design and services related to its construction. Proposals are due October 24th.

The Vision

The Institutional Network (I-Net) design vision encompasses the entire city and will also provide wireless services. It will serve traffic light and advanced camera systems, streetlights, in addition to Internet, VoIP, video conferencing, and a list of other services cities use on a regular basis. From the RFP:

Ultimately, this new fiber network will help meet New Orleans’ goal to serve city-owned and operated buildings and facilities located throughout the 350-square mile city. This new network will improve services to residents, support implementation of Smart City applications and assist the City to achieve cost efficiencies in daily operations while helping disadvantaged residents to bridge the digital divide.

As part of this project, high-speed Internet access may also be offered for public use in city-owned or supported facilities like parks, libraries and New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) centers. The City imagines working with community organizations to offer new services such as digital skills training in these spaces. Additionally, this project will explore design options that allow the network to be leveraged for future potential public private partnerships.

A Number Of Tasks To Tackle

As part of the arrangement, FFL expects some specific tasks from the firm that will be awarded the contract. They will strategize network design process, create a geodatabase documenting in detail where infrastructure will be needed. The firm will have to develop a detailed infrastructure assessment and strategic plan so city leaders know what resources they have and what they can use for the new network. As part of the project they will have to identify the network requirements to meet the city’s goals, craft a design, and develop a business plan. Lastly, the entity that obtains the contract will recommend a network governance structure.

Important Dates:

Deadline for Indication of Intention to Respond:

tgarcia(at)foundationforlouisiana.org 

5 p.m. (Central Time) on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016

 

Deadline for Questions:

tgarcia(at)foundationforlouisiana.org 

5 p.m. (Central Time) on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016

 

Deadline for Proposals:

Tanya Gulliver-Garcia

Manager, Special Initiatives and Evaluation

Foundation for Louisiana

4354 S. Sherwood Forest Blvd. Suite 100 

Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70816

5 p.m. (Central Time) on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

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.

Dublin Residents Push for Residential Fiber, City Continues to Benefit

The Columbus, Ohio suburb of Dublin is home to Dublink, a fiber-optic network that serves local businesses, schools, and community anchor institutions. Dublink brought new jobs and research opportunities to the local economy while saving local institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. 

Just recently, Dublin City School District and City of Dublin struck a deal to allow public schools to use the network. Now, residents want Dublink to deliver high-speed access to their homes. 

Residents Want The Benefits, Too

This spring, Dublin residents expressed their discontent with incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) Charter Communications and AT&T at two packed meetings. Doug McCollough, Dublin’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) summarized local sentiments in a memo to the City Council in April. In the memo and in a Columbus Business First article, McCollough downplayed the idea that the city would operate a network itself, but noted a growing impatience in his community:

"We are a city and should not be competing against telecom carriers, (but) the patience for that message is running out. Our residents want broadband service in their home for a reasonable price – now."

Extensive, compelling public discussions on the social network Nextdoor and in an online forum facilitated by resident group Dublin Broadband encouraged city officials to take up the issue at a larger public meeting in April. Community enthusiasm led to the addition of three more meetings in July, August, and September. The next step will be to survey residential Internet needs and to gather information from the Department of Commerce and incumbent ISPs.

Research & Deployment

Dublink started as a public private partnership to lay conduit in 1999. It originally connected 6 city buildings and the business district. Over the past 17 years, the network was crucial to attracting economic development to the region, as we wrote two years ago. A $1.1 billion Amazon data center, a new Costco Wholesale store, and numerous healthcare employers invested in Dublin in part because of its fiber-optic network. 

In 2005, Dublink began to collaborate with Ohio Academic Research Network (OARnet) to create the Central Ohio Research Network (CORN). The effort connects Dublink with over 1,600 miles of fiber-optic cable linking the region’s top academic research institutions. We wrote about the project last December, when Dublink upgraded speeds on its network to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds (100,000 Megabits per second). 

Dublin City Manager Dana McDaniel foresees further economic development success, particularly in the West Innovation District, 

"We're starting to see those anchor tenants come to fruition. It's heavy in the health arena, information technology and R&D, so it's a great start. I would say it's probably only 25 percent built out so we have a lot of capacity out there." 

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Expedient, a network and data center operator, is currently forming an agreement with the city to lease fiber access and bring additional revenue to the city. Expedient’s CEO tied their decision directly to Dublink, "Because of the Dublink connection, we think that we will be able to grow our business faster and more successfully in Dublin.” 

Local officials are optimistic that all this tech development will spill into the local economy. McDaniel told Columbus Business First, "You drive into these big office parks and you have not place to get lunch and the services you need."

Development Drives City Savings and Revenues

The city eliminated leased lines to switch to Dublink and saved over $4.8 million during the first 12 years.

This year, the City Council decided to turn extra capacity into revenue; a May resolution makes additional dark fiber available for lease, estimated to deliver more than $5.4 million in revenue to the city in the coming decade. A recent Dublin Villager story highlighted the decision:

“A resolution City Council approved May 9 increases the number of optical fiber pairs the city is authorized to offer for lease from 9 to 15 pairs, generating an estimated $525,000 per year in non-taxable revenue, or a total of more than $5.4 million over 10 years with the inclusion of expired leases.”

Open Access Muni On The Way In Campbell River, B.C.

Located on the southern end of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island sits the coastal city of Campbell River. The community recently received a $50,000 grant from the Island Coastal Economic Trust (ICET) to pursue better connectivity through a municipal open access network initiative.

Retain and Attract

The “Salmon Capital of the World” is also home to other industries that increasingly need access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Approximately 31,000 people live in Campbell River. The island’s forestry and mining companies need to have the ability to transfer large data files, such as 3D renderings, detailed maps, and similar geographic files, to business associates. In addition to making the current situation better for existing industries, community leaders want to attract new industries. From a July Campbell River Mirror article:

“We need to retain our existing businesses and enable them to grow in place,” [Economic Development Officer Rose] Klukas said in a release. “We are also looking to attract and support technology and creative sector entrepreneurs – designers, programmers, software engineers, and more – and competitively priced, high-speed broadband is a must-have.”

The ICET grant will fund the completion of a fiber-optic ring that's owned by the city and currently used only for municipal operations. The city will expand the ring and allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services to local businesses via the fiber-optic infrastructure.

The First Of Its Kind

This project will be the first open access municipal network on Vancouver Island. In addition to the more immediate need of better connectivity for Campbell River, ICET hopes to determine if this same model can be duplicated elsewhere on the island.

SandyNet Increases Speeds, Keeps Low Prices

On July 4th, Sandy, Oregon’s municipal fiber-optic network, SandyNet, permanently increased the speed of its entry-level Internet package from 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 300 Mbps at no additional cost to subscribers.

The city announced the speed boost for its $39.95 per month tier in a recent press release, calling it “one of the best deals in the nation.” SandyNet customers witness blazing fast download speeds at affordable prices and benefit from symmetrical upload speeds, allowing them to seamlessly interact with the cloud and work from home. 

Sandy is still home the “$60 Gig” (see price chart), one of the premier gigabit Internet offers in the nation. Without an electric utility, SandyNet’s unique model can be applied to “Anytown, USA.”

Read our report on Sandy, SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown, USA, for details on the community's Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless networks and listen to Chris interview Sandy officials in Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 167.

Check out our video on Sandy:

Chattanooga's EPB Ranked Tops By J.D. Powers, Consumer Reports

EPB customers love the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they get from their muni and they appreciate the way its smart-grid helps them save money on their electric bill. According to a new J.D. Power report, their municipal utility is also the highest rated mid-size utility in the South for customer service and reliability.

Double Honors

Just a month ago, Consumer Reports magazine rated EPB the best TV and Internet access utility in the county for customer satisfaction, as chosen by a reader survey. The J.D. Power report went on to rank EPB number two in the country in the category of municipal or investor-owned electric utility.

The Times Free Press reports that in 2015 EPB Fiber Optics earned a net income of $23.5 million while the electric division earned $3.5 million. EPB President David Wade said that the smart-grid has reduced power outages by 60 percent and contributed to customer satisfaction by enhancing reliability of the system.

"The lesson that utilities can learn from other high-performing service providers is that to excel you need a culture that puts customers and employees first," said John Hazen, senior director of the utility practice at J.D. Power. "And because customer expectations continue to increase, you need to have a mindset of continuous improvement to keep up."

It looks like EPB has that lesson committed to memory. From the Time Free press article:

EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said the favorable grades from EPB customers reflect the utility's local ownership, public service and management focus on serving the customer.

FairlawnGig Connects Two Hotels In Time For RNC

Thousands of delegates, politicians, and media personnel flocked to northeast Ohio in July to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A lucky few stayed in the bedroom community of Fairlawn at one of two hotels now featuring gigabit Internet connections (1,000 Megabits per second). 

FairlawnGig, the town’s new municipal network, hooked up Hilton Akron-Fairlawn and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Akron-Fairlawn in time for the convention. Guests could seamlessly stream video, upload content, and communicate with coworkers and family, despite the hotels’ full occupancy. The fiber-optic network will soon be available to residents and businesses across the community. 

More than just the RNC

Fairlawn has a lot to gain from a faster, more reliable network. On a typical workday, the community swells from an overnight population of 7,500 to 40,000, putting a sizeable bandwidth burden on slow-moving incumbent network providers. According to Ernie Staten, Deputy Director of Fairlawn’s Public Service Department in Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 201, a typical connection in Fairlawn measured in at 15 Mbps (Megabit per second) download and 1 Mbps upload before the municipal network.

Incumbent Internet service providers clearly weren’t doing enough for families or businesses in today’s connected economy. As we wrote earlier this year, FairlawnGig will be delivering symmetrical gigabit speeds (download and upload speeds up to 1 gigabit per second) at affordable prices. The ability to send data at high-speed is increasingly becoming a critical feature, especially for business subscribers.

Municipal networks have a profound effect on customer-ISP relationship. The hotels will feature the fastest connection within the Hilton hotel network. Tim Winter, Vice President/Regional Manager of the Hilton Akron-Fairlawn and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Akron-Fairlawn, was quoted by FairlawnGig: 

“We put a lot of trust into the team Ernie Staten and the City of Fairlawn brought together and we are already seeing the results. Our guests and RNC delegates are getting the fastest Internet service available so they can stay connected to their corporate offices and the rest of the world.” 

Bozeman Fiber Transitions from Construction to Operations

Local officials are preparing to light a highly anticipated municipal fiber-optic network in Bozeman, Montana. Over the course of three years, nonprofit Bozeman Fiber, Inc. laid about 30 miles of fiber optic cable in downtown Bozeman, connecting local government, businesses, and schools to a high-speed, fiber-optic network. According to local news provider MTN News via KBZK, Bozeman Fiber will be completely operational within the next 60-90 days. 

For Bozeman, affordable fiber-optic Internet access presents an important opportunity for local economic development. Anthony Cochenour of Bozeman Fiber explained the project’s goal to MTN News, 

"More bandwidth at lower costs, and better availability for higher bandwidth than we can get today. It’s one of the barriers to entry that Bozeman has to attracting increasingly large and interesting businesses, the business that we want to be here.”

A Unique Arrangement

Bozeman recently amended its ten-year old Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to prioritize fiber-optic infrastructure. When the city decided it needed a better network, locals created a private nonprofit entity, Bozeman Fiber, to oversee fiber deployment. Instead of the city running the network itself, they felt that a nonprofit would be better suited for the role. A majority of its seven board members come from the public and private sector, with just one seat for the city. The project’s $3.85 million budget was funded exclusively by private equity investments from local banks. 

We’ve been closely following Bozeman’s unique public-private collaboration:

Check out video coverage from local channel KBZK.com.