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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.

Rural Georgia, Here's A Survey For Ya!

Georgia has a few areas where businesses and residents can obtain high-quality Internet access, usually from munis, but most of the rural areas of the state are still lacking when it comes to connectivity. In order to find out exactly how big the problem is, state lawmakers are asking rural Georgia residents to complete an online broadband survey.

Asking Rural Residents

State Sen. Steve Gooch told the Gainesville Times, the results will be used by a joint committee of lawmakers who will then make recommendations to the General Assembly next year. “One of the biggest problems I have gotten complaints about from my constituents is the Internet,” he said.

Incumbent Windstream has promised to upgrade in areas of the state, but U.S. Representative Doug Collins from northeast Georgia has fielded calls from constituents that leave him wondering if they will ever live up to those promises:

“It is my hope that this survey truly demonstrates what the broadband experience is like for users in Northeast Georgia. It is one thing to hear promises from the internet service providers, but the truth will lie in the responses of real consumers,” Collins said in a statement to The Times.

“I welcome the state to the fight for rural broadband and look forward to working with them as I continue the effort on behalf of my constituents to get the best service possible. Reliable broadband is critical to growing our economic footprint and the day-to-day functioning of our citizens.”

Take The Survey!

If you are a Georgia resident living in a rural area, take a few moments to fill out the survey here, to let lawmakers know how difficult it is for you to obtain good connectivity. Unless they know the scope of the problem, they will never take steps to fix it.

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

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 Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Savannah Studies Situation for Possible Muni

In early May, leaders in Savannah, Georgia, retained a consultant to prepare a feasibility study to help the community examine ways to improve local connectivity. Local leaders want consultants to consider ways to better serve municipal facilities, community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents.

Incumbent Trouble

In March, incumbent Comcast announced that it would bring fiber-optic connectivity to businesses in Savannah by the end of 2016, but the company has a poor reputation in the Hostess City with both residents and businesses.

Back in 2011 and 2012, there were so many complaints to city leaders Aldermen began holding public meetings so citizens could air complaints. People complained about high rates, poor customer service, and Internet interruptions during rainstorms. Business owners could not get cable connectivity in the downtown area from Comcast; the company said the low number of connections did not justify the investment. Stop the Cap! covered the whole sordid affair in 2012, describing Savannah’s unhappy populace as in a state of “open revolt.”

The company has reportedly made improvements, but trust is a fragile thing.

Moving Forward, No Comcast

After so much trouble with the cable company, it’s understandable that city leaders might decide to side-step Comcast. According to an announcement in Broadband Communities Magazine, the consultants will examine the existing fiber assets in the city and offer ways to expand off that fiber to better serve the community.

City officials have been discussing the possibilities of better connectivity via a municipal fiber optic network for a while now and have been more open about it in recent months. In March, Mayor Eddie DeLoach told Local News WTOC:

“We got to have fiber optic if we are going to have anyone from the film industry or SCAD or these engineering places, we got to have high speed internet. We got to have the broadband.”

“If Savannah is going to compete in the next 15 years, starting this year we need to come up with a plan and a design with that in mind.”

Local Media Loves Opelika Gigabit Fiber Network

We love when community networks are celebrated for their accomplishments and potential. Opelika, Alabama, started to build a network in 2010, and now local news proudly showcases the community as a Gig City.

The Fiber-to-the-Home network in Opelika turned out to be a great investment for the community. After five years of work and $43 million, the network now boasts 3,000 customers. With such incredible high-speed Internet access, Opelika hopes to attract new businesses and encourage young people to stay. For more of the history of the network, check out our interview with Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller in Episode 40 of Broadband Bits.

Local News Celebrates Opelika’s Network

Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.

Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

Two Fiber Networks Collaborate: Aim to Bridge Digital Divide in Georgia

In October, the North Georgia Network (NGN) cooperative announced the formation of a new partnership with Georgia Public Web (GPW), a pairing that will conjoin two large fiber optic networks that together cover most of the State of Georgia. The newly announced partnership will enable the two organizations to more effectively confront their shared mission to improve broadband access across the state. Paul Belk, president and CEO of NGN, expressed his enthusiasm for the new partnership:

GPW is a great company for NGN to work with, as we have similar goals to serve communities challenged with ‘the digital divide.’ The companies are great links to each other because GPW serves most of the state with the exception of NGN’s footprint. Together we create a complete solution.

Two Networks Become One

This partnership connects GPW’s nearly 3,500 mile fiber optic network that stretches across most of the state to NGN’s 1,600 mile network. As Mr. Belk noted, a look at NGN’s network map shows that it covers one of the few remaining service areas in Georgia that GPW’s massive network map does not reach.

The North Georgia Network is a “corporation of cooperatives” with a mission to bring fast, reliable and affordable broadband access to rural Georgian businesses, government facilities, educational institutions, and medical centers and to more broadly help advance the state's economic development objectives. Georgia Public Web is a non-profit corporation in Georgia owned collectively by 32 city governments that strives to bring broadband connectivity to underserved communities in rural and urban Georgia. The partnership will allow the organizations to combine technologies, resources, and their unique areas of expertise to form a more efficient single network that spans their shared coverage areas.

GPW/NGN Podcasts

In a June podcast, we spoke with GPW’s President and CEO David Muschamp about the organization’s efforts to improve broadband access across the Georgia. We also spoke to NGN’s CEO Paul Belk in a 2013 podcast about the history and objectives of the North Georgia Network.

Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Peachtree City, Georgia Approves Resolution to Establish Municipal Broadband Utility

At a September meeting, the City Council in Peachtree City, Georgia unanimously approved a resolution to construct and operate a fiber-optic broadband network.  According to the City Council minutes from the meeting, the initial 22.54-miles of fiber will provide 1 Gbps broadband access to various facilities in the City Service area.

In addition to providing connectivity for government buildings, utility services, and medical and educational buildings, the city will target business customers in the “high end user category.”

Officials estimate the network will cost $3.23 million. To pay for the project, the Peachtree City Public Facilities Authority, an independent local government authority created by the state legislature in 2011, will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Peachtree City. According the August 2015 Fiber Initiative plan, capital for the project will come from the Authority; the city will issue a bond and pay installments to the Authority under an Agreement of Sale.

For several years now, the city located 30 miles southeast of Atlanta has explored options to improve local connectivity. City leaders tried and failed to bring Google Fiber to the community of 35,000 people in 2010. The city attempted repeatedly to urge private ISPs like AT&T to address the problem with no success. In February of this year, city leaders began work on a study to explore the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber network.

City Council members citizens at the recent City Council meeting expressed concerns that the network will not pay for itself and taxpayers will be left to cover unpaid costs. According to a recent survey of local businesses, 100% of respondents reacted positively to the prospect of a municipal network for connectivity.

In order to achieve the plan’s objectives, the network will need 12 “high-end” commercial customers by the end of year 2.  The city’s consultant expressed confidence in meeting that first goal:

“If we had a different experience, I would be standing up here in front of you saying 12 is going to be a stretch. However, we found exactly the opposite to be the case,” said Davis. “I was amazed by that. It’s a surprise to me that the demand was so great, and that the existing customer base out there was so positive about becoming a user. From a pure business standpoint, that gave me a lot of confidence to come in and say I believe we can hit this number and I believe we can exceed this number.”

The city’s Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore added that the business plan for the project is based on conservative assumptions.  It relies on a 20-year financial model projecting success for the network if the city secures at least 12 non-governmental customers in addition to 17 serviceable government sites. Thereafter, if it reaches at least 19 total non-governmental customers by year 6, the network will start to achieve positive gains, a 10-year bond payoff, and profitability after 16 to 20 years.  

City officials have no plans to bring the network to residential subscribers at this stage, choosing instead to focus on direct and indirect economic development benefits, public safety improvements, and better cell phone coverage that will likely result from the fiber deployment. They did not rule out the prospect of fiber for residents in the future. (Watch a complete video of the September 17th City Council meeting here, the city’s municipal broadband network discussion starts at 28:20.)

At a workshop earlier in September, city leaders met with the consultant to finalize the business plan for the network. At the meeting, Interim City Manager Jon Rorie quizzed the City Council about the risks involved with investing in the new broadband network. By the time the City Council met 9 days later, Rorie was convinced of the plan’s prospects for success: 

“We recognize this is a big decision, and it is of a visionary nature, but we also recognize that there is a risk exposure as a business model,” he said. “As far as providing an opportunity from an economic development perspective, I do think it is a huge opportunity as we move forward.

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.