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Tullahoma’s LighTUBe Connects 3,500th Customer

Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) recently celebrated its 3,500th Internet customer, rewarding the lucky LightTUBe subscriber with a $350 bill credit. TUB has offered Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) triple-play services to the Tennessee town of 19,000 since 2009. 

LightTUBe now boasts an estimated market penetration rate of 39 percent, despite competition from publicly-traded incumbents Charter, Comcast, and AT&T. LightTUBe delivers $90 per month symmetrical gigabit connectivity (1,000 Megabits per second), so upload and download speeds are equally fast. LightTUBe also offers other affordable options and has repeatedly lowered prices and increased speeds.

Lighting the Way for Tennessee

TUB successfully stimulated economic development with its LightTUBe service, attracting businesses like J2 to Tullahoma. It has also enabled smart metering and other cost-saving measures that are a boon to the local community. Yet, Tennessee state law preempts public utility companies from providing Internet services to communities beyond their electrical grid. With little meaningful competition, neighboring communities have no alternative to incumbent providers. 

Although the FCC overruled the State of Tennessee in 2015, both Tennessee and North Carolina are in the process of appealing to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. A recently published study showed that 13 percent of state residents do not have access to broadband services and recommended removing barriers to broadband infrastructure investment. TUB, Bristol’s BTES, and Chattanooga’s EPB are increasingly making the case for overturning the state law in favor of community self-determination. 

Congratulations TUB (and customer number 3,500)!

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Tiny Mt Washington Builds Fiber-to-the-Home - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 212

Overlooked by the incumbent telephone company, Mount Washington in the southwest corner of Massachusetts is becoming one of the smallest FTTH communities in the country by investing in a municipal fiber network. A strong majority of the town committed to three years of service and the state contributed $230,000 to build the network after a lot of local groundwork and organizing.

Select Board member Gail Garrett joins us for episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits to discuss their process and the challenges of crafting an economical plan on such a small scale.

It turns out that the rural town had some advantages - low make-ready costs from the lack of wires on poles and no competition to have to worry about. So they are moving forward and with some cooperation from the telephone company and electric utility, they could build it pretty quickly. We also discuss what happens to those homes that choose not to take service when it is rolled out - they will have to pay more later to be connected.

Read the rest of our coverage of Mt Washington here.

Read the transcript of this episode 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Yellow Springs, OH, Releases RFP: Proposals Due August 22

Earlier this year, the grassroots group, Springs-Net, presented its white paper on a potential municipal network in their town of 3,700 people. The village, located in central Ohio between Dayton and Columbus, is taking up the suggestion and recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a broadband needs assessment and business plan.

The village already operates municipal electric, water, sewer, and storm water utilities, however does not own any municipal fiber. According to the RFP, Yellow Springs collaborates with several local schools and an educational computer association for connectivity to the village’s municipal office location. There is also fiber in the community owned by the Ohio Academic Research Network (OARNet) and a non-profit datacenter in the area.

Yellow Springs wants interested firms to answer their call and provide options for:

  • Mapping Needs Assessment
  • Business and Financial Model
  • Governance and Ownership Strategy
  • Funding and Financial Analysis
  • Public-Private Partnership Development
  • Infrastructure Recommendations

There will be an informal session for respondents on August 1 at 11 a.m. in the Yellow Springs Council Chambers and proposals are due on August 22, 2016. Check out the Yellow Springs website for more details on the RFP.

Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 211

Fort Collins is a thriving community of over 150,000 and the home of Colorado State University. Despite gorgeous vistas and many high tech jobs, Fort Collins basically has the same cable and DSL duopoly the majority of communities suffer from. But they are making plans for something better.

Mayor Wade Troxell joins us this week for episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to talk about their situation and planning process.

We talk about their need for better access and how they are committed to taking action even if they are not quite sure yet what it will be. They exempted themselves from the Previously-Qwest-But-Now-CenturyLink-Protection-Act that requires a referendum for the local government to introduce telecommunications competition... with 83 percent support.

We end our discussion by talking again about undergrounding utility assets - which took them many decades but is very nearly complete.

Watch a video of Mayor Troxell at the Digital Northwest - where I was moderating a panel.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 24 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."

Whip City Fiber Snaps To It: Yet Another Expansion In Westfield, MA

In the spring, Westfield, Massachusetts began to expand it’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Whip City Fiber with a build-out to three additional neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Westfield Gas + Electric announced that they will soon expand even further to three more areas.

According to Dan Howard, General Manager of the utility, the demand for the symmetrical Internet access is strong:

"Every day we hear from residents of Westfield who are anxious for high-speed Internet to be available in their neighborhood," he said. "It's a great motivator for our entire team to hear how much customers are looking forward to this new service."

Gigabit residential access is $69.95 per month; businesses pay $84.95 for the same product but also get Wi-Fi for their establishments. Installation is free. If people in the new target areas sign up before August 31st, they will get a free month of service.

Like a growing number of communities, Westfield started with a pilot project in a limited area to test the level of interest for a FTTH network in their community. They are finding a high level of interest and gaining both confidence and the knowledge to continue the incremental expansion across the community. Other towns with the same approach include Owensboro, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Holland, Michigan.

Westfield officials are asking interested residents and businesses to check out the pilot expansion page to determine if they are in the expansion area and to sign up for service. The page also explains how your Westfield neighborhood can become a fiberhood to get on the list for expansion.

For more about Whip City Fiber, listen to Chris interview Aaron Bean, Operations Manager, and Sean Fitzgerald, Customer Service Manager, from Westfield Gas + Electric. They spoke in June during episode #205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Westminster Muni Network Expanding

Marking another big step forward, the mayor and Common Council of Westminster, Maryland (pop. 18,000) have hired a telecommunications, utility and government contracting firm to continue building the first two phases of the Westminster Fiber Network (WFN).

City Hires SMC

Westminster expects to complete this construction in 2017, providing Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to an additional 2,700 homes and businesses in the western part of the community, according to a city news release. Cost of this phase is undetermined $21 million, Westminster marketing consultant Jason Stambaugh told us; the city will issue general obligation bonds to fund the entire cost of the network the expansion.

One year after Westminster celebrated lighting its municipal fiber network, the city hired SMC, Inc. to construct the expansion. Westminster is partnering with Toronto-based Ting to provide retail services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. 

“This expansion of the WFN is an important milestone and demonstrates the City’s continued commitment to revolutionize Internet access, bring local jobs, and drive innovation that will enable the community to thrive.”

Westminster began building its municipal fiber network in October, 2014, and entered into a public-private partnership with Ting in February, 2015. The city owns the infrastructure and Ting leases fiber to bring Internet service to businesses and residents. Westminster began its municipal fiber network, spending about $1.8 million to get the project started in a residential retirement community and an industrial park. 

Bonds Back Fiber Network  

Because of high demand, the City Council voted to expand the municipal fiber project, approving a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank.  

As MuniNetworks.org reported last December:

“According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster.”  

Although the city doesn’t have hard numbers on the impact of the pilot program, there have been plenty of positive anecdotal reports, Stambaugh told us. He noted: 

“One of our local businesses, Open Professional Group, has said that the Internet service he's able to purchase over the network through Ting is allowing his firm to save money on their monthly Internet bills and has drastically increased productivity. He's also noted that he's extremely proud of his Internet speeds. When clients come in for a visit, he'll often do a speed test to show off his new Gigabit connection.”

Currently, Westminster is in the midst of completing engineering and going through a competitive bidding process on the project, Stambaugh told us.  

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More on Westminster Fiber 

We've published numerous stories on Westminster’s municipal fiber network. Just last month, we highlighted a Carroll County Times report about Westminster officials and the city’s fiber network partner, Ting, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the first Ting Makerspace, a service featuring 3-D scanning technology. 

You can also learn more about the WFN by listening to episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Chris Mitchell talked with Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the plan in Westminster. Learn more details about the partnership between Westminster and Ting by downloading our report, The Secrets Behind Partnerships to Improve Internet Access.

UPDATE: While the exact cost of this phase is yet to be determined, City Council documents reflect that SMC was hired to complete phase 1 and begin phase 2. The firm will be paid approximately $3.8 million. Strambaugh stressed that this expansion to 2,700 properties is a substantial percentage of the community’s 7,000 premises.

Community Connections - Westminster & Ting: The How and the Why

More and more cities are turning to public-private partnerships (PPP's) in building Internet networks that meet the needs of 21st century homes and businesses. If a city builds its own fiber and leases it to a trusted partner, they can negotiate for activities that benefit the public good, like universal access. 

In this video Christopher Mitchell interviews Dr. Robert Wack with Westminster, Maryland and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, the parent of Ting. The two talk about their revolutionary public-private fiber partnership.

The video outlines a basic economic principle: "Ownership equals control, and control means leverage." If you don't have that leverage (such as ownership of infrastructure) you won't get a good deal from your private ISP.

Noss has long been active in preserving and expanding the open Internet. Dr. Wack is a city council member and driving force behind the open access fiber network partnership. 

For a much more detailed look at public-private partnerships, check out our guide: "Successful Strategies for Broadband Public-Private Partnerships". The term "public-private partnership" has been muddied in the past. The report clears up the confusion: public entities and private companies must both have "skin in the game" to balance the risks and amplify the rewards.

 

In Minnesota, Alexandria Connects Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 210

When the cable and telephone companies refused to offer dial-up Internet service 20 years ago in Alexandria, Minnesota, the municipal utility stepped up and made it available. For years, most everyone in the region used it to get online. Now, the utility has focused its telecommunications attention on making fiber-optic telecommunications services available to local businesses.

Alexandria's ALP Utilities General Manager Al Crowser joins us this week to explain what they have done and why. Like us, Al is a strong believer that local governments can be the best provider of essential services to local businesses and residents.

In the show, we talk some history and also about the difference between local customer service and that from a larger, more distant company. He discusses how they have paid for the network and where net income goes. And finally, we talk about their undergrounding project.

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 18 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."

Leverett Releases RFP For ISP: Responses Due August 15th

Leverett, Massachusetts, has operated its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network since August 2015, working with Crocker Communications to bring Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to residents and businesses in the Massachusetts town. The contract with Crocker is not indefinite, however, and the city has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services on the network. Responses are due August 15, 2016.

According to the RFP, the ISP selected will have an exclusive agreement to provide services to the community as leverettnet.net. The community seeks a three-year contract and will begin on or before July 1, 2017. 

Leverett’s contract with Crocker Communications was also a three-year term, commencing in 2014. Releasing an RFP now will give community leaders eleven months to review submissions from potential providers and negotiate terms. With their own infrastructure, Leverett has the ability to take a discerning approach and explore other options from the RFP release.

RFP SCHEDULE: 

Written Questions Due: July 18, 2016 at 10 a.m. 

Answers to Questions Posted: July 25, 2016

Submission of Proposals Due: August 15, 2016 at 10 a.m.

Finalist Named: August 26th, 2016

Contract Award: September 2nd, 2016

Glenwood Springs, Colorado: Fiber Frontier

Glenwood Springs was the first community in Colorado to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, the Community Broadband Network (CBN), and offer services to local businesses. The community, originally named “Defiance,” was also one of the first U.S. communities to have electric lights. Their open access municipal network has improved connectivity throughout the community and helped establish robust competition in this western frontier town.

Dial-Up Just Didn’t Do It; City Steps In

Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director at Glenwood Springs, spoke with Christopher Mitchell for episode #206 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and he shared some of the network’s history. Before community leaders chose to take matters into their own hands, Qwest (now CentuyLink) and AT&T were offering dial-up services to residents and businesses. The city approached the incumbents and asked them to make upgrades to improve local connectivity but were told by both companies that they had no plans to make improvements.

Bruce Munroe, former Director of Information Services, was interviewed in 2005 about the community's plan to invest in fiber and the incumbents' reaction. He said:

“When we started, we were told that it wouldn’t be profitable for them to provide service,” says Munroe. “But they also said ‘you can’t do it either.’ There was no interest in [pursuing] anything until we said we were going to do it.” Glenwood moved ahead anyway after its city council approved a municipal service plan based on keeping businesses in town. “We were protecting our economic base,” says Munroe, who noted that businesses were leaving because they didn’t have speedy access to the Internet. 

Farmer recalls that a citizens group formed to advance the prospect of publicly owned Internet infrastructure. While a plan surfaced to offer triple-play via fiber-optic connectivity to the entire community, pushback from local fixed wireless Internet access providers and other businesses eventually led community leaders to scale back. The city chose instead to offer businesses and community anchor institutions (CAI) connectivity via an open access fiber-optic network in 2000-2001 and use the backbone to create a fixed wireless network for residential access. While a number of private wireless providers used the CBN to offer residential services, the city did not actually offer fixed wireless directly to residents until 2009. According to Farmer, they never advertised and had less than one percent of the subscriber base.

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In his interview with Christopher, Farmer described some of the difficulties with the plan in a town the size of Glenwood Springs where there were already a number of wireless providers:

“[A]t that point we were directly competing with the existing wireless providers and many of them became resellers on our network”

There were a relatively high number of wireless providers offering services in Glenwood Springs - as many as seven at one time - which made the market very competitive. Farmer believes the town's population of a little less than 10,000 does not support a high number of competitors. Connectivity throughout the community is certainly better than it was before the public investment, but it has been a challenging journey, recalls Farmer.

As Farmer also noted in the interview, the open access model created problems when larger regional providers bought out smaller local ISPs. When providers on the CBN were not dedicated enough to maintain relationships with the customers they served the city felt the fallout. Customers encountered problems with the network and let their providers know, but the providers failed to promptly inform the Glenwood Springs Internet division. As a result, customers were frustrated and chose to cancel service.

Anchor institutions and businesses still connected via the fiber-optic network, but connecting included hefty installation charges. Over time, the city drastically lowered the connection charges, encouraging more businesses and institutions to connect to the CBN. Glenwood Springs has forged ahead to bring better connectivity to local businesses and CAIs and, while the city has had to contend with the problems of being one of several providers in a competitive market, the CBN has created an environment beyond one or two providers and prices are held in check.

City Savings

In addition to keeping prices reasonable for businesses and CAIs, the city is able to keep its own telecommunications costs down by self-provisioning. Farmer estimates that Glenwood Springs saves approximately $140,000 per year because it uses the CBN rather than obtaining comparable services from a private provider. He adds that, because the network adds redundancy, savings may actually be much higher; with a network that doesn't go down, efficiency is always optimal.

There are 25 municipal facilities connected to the CBN, including wastewater, water treatment, and electric department facilities. Glenwood Springs also uses the CBN to connect fires stations, the Community Center, and its Municipal Operations Center.

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Just as importantly, Glenwood Springs is able to budget because their costs are predictable. When local communities depend on big private providers for services, they are at a disadvantage because those corporations have the ability to increase rates and communities have little say in the matter. If a community has no alternate provider, they have no leverage to negotiate.

In Martin County, Florida, for example, the franchise agreement between the county and Time Warner Cable was coming to a close. The ISP planned to raise rates by more than 800 percent. Rather than submit to corporate piracy, the community partnered with the school district and invested in their own Internet infrastructure. In addition to taking control of their own connectivity decisions, Martin County and its parner are saving millions each year.

A Plan To Expand, A Vote To Reclam Autority

By 2008, the municipal electric utility had invested approximately $3.5 million to deploy the fiber system for communications purposes and the electric system. The city began to consider using the network for more than just business connectivity, possibly offering services directly to residents.

At the time, Public Works Director Robin Millyard said, “It’s like having a Ferrari in a garage on a gravel road.” The City Manager noted that the network was, “[A] tremendous asset available to this community that’s being underutilized.”

The city considered the possibility of selling off the wireless network and expanding the existing fiber-optic network to serve all businesses and households in the community in order to offer triple-play. The city had already commissioned a feasibility study to look at the plan. City leaders anticipated funding the $12 million expansion with a revenue bond.

By 2008, Colorado's SB 152 had passed the state legislature, so before the city could expand their offerings, the voters had to reclaim local authority through referendum. In April, voters passed the measure 707 to 605 in the single-issue election. The municipality now had the legal option to expand its network. If any future expansion required issuing a revenue bond or some other form of bond, the community would need to vote again to authorize the financing. After several months of study, however, the City Council ultimately chose not to pursue such a big project.

Instead, Glenwood Springs decided to begin providing direct Internet access to businesses, rather than only offering the fiber infrastructure on which third party providers could offer services to commercial subscribers. By working directly with commercial customers, the city was able to improve its reputation and take on more customers. The demand for services from the city has risen approximately 20 percent each year. He attributes the increased interest in the city’s efforts in part to better customer service.

The CBN Today And Tomorrow

Businesses can sign up for one of three tiers, with all speeds symmetrical so upload is as fast as download, a critical component of business Internet access.

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All tiers include a public IP address, no data cap limit, and no long term contract:

  • Fiber Optic 50 - 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $70 per month
  • Fiber Optic 100 - 100 Mbps for $105 per month
  • Fiber Optic 250 - 250 Mbps for $175 per month

Glenwood Springs CBN also offers Enterprise services that include speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) and private network connectivity with speeds as fast as 10 Gbps.

The fixed wireless service the city offers to residents is being discontinued because there are ample wireless providers in Glenwood Springs and because the equipment is outdated. Instead, the community is looking again at the possibility of providing connectivity directly to residents, this time via Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Glenwood Springs is engaged in the operations and maintenance phase of a pilot project that has passed 36 homes. The pilot project is testing the waters in one neighborhood; nine households have subscribed so far. Subscribers can choose basic service of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) upload and download (symmetrical) for $40 per month or symmetrical Gigbit service (1000 Mbps) for $780 per month. The pilot program cost just under $20,000 from the electric utility's existing budget.

An increasing number of communities are choosing to experiment with pilot programs, such as Owensboro, Kentucky, and Westfield, Massachusetts. As well as giving the community a chance to see the advantages of superior Internet access, thus raising demand, a pilot project provides the opportunity to resolve unanticipated problems with technology or administrative operations.

The Future In "Defiance" And Elsewhere In Colorado

They call themselves Glenwood Springs, but this western Colorado town of about 10,000 people have held on to the spirit of those who called it "Defiance." The people of the community are deciding for themselves the best course and following their own path. Each election season - fall and spring - more communities are asking voters to exercise that spirit by opting out of SB 152 and taking back local authority. Glenwood Springs was the first and has been joined by dozens of others; we expect to see more who choose to exercise their right to self-determination.