EPB Fiber, the municipally owned broadband utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has already connected more than 4,400 households and 6,800 students to free, 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) Internet (with no data caps) in its bid to reach all 32,000 students on free or reduced lunch in Hamilton County schools. Listen to Episode 425 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast to learn more.
When Craig Eccher, CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, joined Christopher on the podcast last fall, he had an exciting project to talk about: the electric cooperative, after strong calls from its membership asking their utility to deliver broadband, stepped up and committed to an $80 million, 3,250-mile fiber build across the rugged terrain of rural Pennsylvania, the first leg propelled by $52.6 million in federal and state grants. Tri-Co Connections, the subsidiary building the network and serving as provider, has begun connecting residents in an aggressive plan to serve 10,000 users in the next three years. The move makes Tri-County the first electric co-op in Pennsylvania to enter the fiber space, and it's doing so in dramatic fashion.
More Humble Beginnings
The project started as a smart meter initiative as the electric co-op realized that reliability and other cost savings gains could be made if it ran fiber to its substations and other infrastructure, but at an annual meeting five years ago members overwhelmingly said they wanted more. In fact, when surveyed, 80% said they wanted their electric utility to deliver broadband. But the co-op faced some significant obstacles, primarily in the form of low population density — its service territory in north-central Pennsylvania has an average of just six homes per mile. Financially, the plan wouldn’t have worked without a successful bid for a number of grants. They include a $17 million PennDOT grant, a $1.5 million state grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project program, a $33 million Connect America Fund II (CAFII) grant, and a $2.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant. All told, they add up to two-thirds of the anticipated costs of the project. The rest will be paid for by ongoing subscription fees as residents, farms, and businesses are brought online. Sheri Collins, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania’s Office of Broadband...Read more
This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Jill Levine, Chief of Innovation and Choice at Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Evan Freeman, Director of Government Relations at the city’s municipal electric and fiber utility, EPB, and Deb Socia, President of the Enterprise Center.
Together, the group discusses the recent landmark announcement by Hamilton County Schools of HCS EdConnect, in which the schools, local government, EPB, and local stakeholders and philanthropic organizations have come together and made it possible to connect all school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the district to free 100 Mbps symmetrical Internet access for the next ten years. The initiative will include not only 32,000 students but their families as well, and is the first of its kind in the United States — a success story at using a city-wide network to bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged students, and a decisive move to respond to unequal Internet access during a worldwide public health crisis.
Jill, Evan, and Deb discuss the challenges of setting up the partnerships that made it happen, overcoming obstacles — including dealing with tens of thousands of new customers with unique skills and needs — and how they managed to pull it off.
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This show is 31 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
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Yesterday in an announcement via livestream, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools, and the fiber arm of municipal utility Electric Power Board (EPB) announced a partnership to provide free Internet access and hardware to the 17,700 homes with school children on free or reduced lunch programs in the county. Called HCS EdConnect, the initiative will be the first of its kind in the United States — a success story at using a city-wide network to bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged students, and a decisive move to respond to unequal Internet access during a worldwide public health crisis.
Creative Thinking and Public-Private Partnerships
This is a watershed moment for the city of Chattanooga and its residents. It’s the result of hard work by a coalition of public and private partners, including the city, the school district, EPB, area nonprofit The Enterprise Center, and a host of others. Once completed, the program will connect more than 32,000 students. Those households who already received EPB’s low-cost service (called NetBridge) will be eligible for the program as well, and the group is looking at ways to connect the hundred or so homes currently not in EPB’s service area. A goal of early January has been set.
In total, the connection effort will cost $8.2 million to complete, with $6 million already raised. $1 million each has been contributed by Hamilton County Schools, the Smart City Collaborative, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee. The county and the city of Chattanooga have likewise chipped in $1.5 million.
"Thanks to support, all children in Hamilton County will have tools and the opportunity they need to engage in equitable learning," said Deb Socia, CEO, The Enterprise Center
“Families and students need high-speed broadband for schoolwork, exploration, and innovation,” said...
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks to Deb Socia, President and CEO, and Geoff Millener, Senior Program and Operations Officer of The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Deb and Geoff share the breadth and depth of the work they’ve been doing recently to advance digital inclusion efforts and respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in ways that help the local community.
They tell Christopher about The Enterprise Center’s three-prong approach: the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative, which works to ensure that smart-city infrastructure is responsive to the needs of citizens; their work in the innovation district to help entrepreneurs build networks and create opportunities for getting access to capital; and finally, their Tech Goes Home initiative, which offers digital literacy courses and discounted hardware in pursuit of lowering the barriers to Internet access and inclusion.
Restaurants and churches around the country have been hit particularly hard by stay home orders and the other public health responses put into place to combat the transmission of the coronavirus, and Deb and Geoff describe the approach they’ve taken in Chattanooga. By finding trusted partners in local communities and leveraging their expertise and relationships with entities like EPB Fiber (the city’s municipal fiber network) Deb, Geoff, and their colleagues have helped small restaurant owners and church leaders get online and get the word out so that the local economy better weathers the storm and people can continue their faith traditions.
Finally, in this episode Christopher, Deb, and Geoff discuss the strides being taken in telehealth and telemental health in order to ensure more equitable opportunities and outcomes. They talk about the advantages to vulnerable populations, the potential savings to Medicare and Medicaid, and the wealth of opportunities for medical care related to aging in place, addiction recovery, palliative care, and removing the stigma of seeking mental health services.
See earlier coverage on...Read more
This is the tenth year that PCMag has conducted its Fastest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) test, and it comes at a time when tens of millions more Americans across the country are working from home. This time, the results show two significant categories of winners — municipal networks and private-sector ISPs using publicly owned fiber or conduit — which says a lot about the state of high-speed Internet. Like last year, municipal networks and their private sector partners along with locally-owned providers dominated the rankings.
PCMag’s methodology doesn’t seem to have changed much in 2020. Using a customized tool, the outlet tests ping, jitter, and per-second data throughput on the download and upload side of things. The results are weighted 80% towards download and 20% towards upload. From June 1st to June 2nd, 443,940 tests were completed, with the magazine ruling out non-U.S. benchmarks for a final aggregation of 358,358 tests. The minimum threshold to earn a place on the list is 100 tests, and PCMag breaks down the results in two major categories: Fastest Major ISP (those with at least a million subscribers) and Fastest Overall ISP. Read the full report here.
Cedar Falls Utilities Dominates
The biggest news is that municipal network Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) took the top spot as Fastest ISP in America by a wide margin. Founded in 1994, CFU connected its first broadband customer in 1996 and completed its Fiber-to-the-Home upgrade for all subscribers in 2013. That year, the city of 41,000 became Iowa’s first Gigabit City. Today, the utility serves around 15,000 homes and businesses. CFU has also been in the news recently after announcing a 10 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) symmetrical tier for $105/month for city residents and $110 for those living in rural areas of its service footprint. They have also been doing their part to close the homework gap by offering 15 Mbps Internet...Read more
I have been tracking from afar local grassroots efforts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to start a municipal broadband network for years. I've visited them locally and spoken to various people from citizens to elected officials about the different options. The following are my observations. I'm not trying to channel their thoughts on how to move forward.
Cambridge is a high-tech city with nearly ubiquitous coverage from Comcast, delivering more or less the same services they offer to millions of homes — which is too say mostly reliable and high-cost Internet access (that will be still higher cost next year and the next after that). In the case of Comcast, it comes with crippled upload speeds compared to fast download capacity. Customer service is . . . well, you do your best to never have to use it.
But with MIT and Harvard within its confines, many in Cambridge are well aware that Internet access can get so much better and not be mediated by a company willing to spend millions in D.C. to preserve its right to set up tollbooths for certain kinds of content if they so choose.
However, Cambridge is remarkably similar to Palo Alto, which is also home to high tech households that mostly use Comcast cable and sometimes have the option of AT&T fiber. And in both instances, there is a strong case for some kind of municipal network that would create more local Internet choice. Both appear to have significant support in the community for a public option. But both also have city staff that have decided to prevent any meaningful investment.
They have run into the challenge that Seattle also wrestled with. These high profile cities have refused to consider creative, incremental, and targeted efforts. Instead, they have focused almost entirely on the costs of duplicating Chattanooga or Wilson, where the community built the entire citywide at once with debt-financed capital.
In Cambridge, the city council is rebelling after having been stymied by a city manager that has successful resisted efforts to study municipal broadband for years.
City Manager DePasquale has consistently refused to act on municipal broadband despite a...Read more
When it comes to opportunity for startups, the folks at Inc. Magazine turned to Startup Genome, an innovation policy company that examines important factors to develop its Surge Cities index. Startup Genome looked at seven of the most important indicators, including seed funding and job creation, and created a top-50 list of places most friendly for startups. Chattanooga came in at 36 on the list, mostly due to its fiber optic network.
Inc.com described Chattanooga as the Gig City "where approachability meets opportunity" and went on to write:
In 2010, Chattanooga became the first U.S. city to offer inexpensive gigabit-speed internet to all of its residents. Since then, the Tennessean city's economy has flourished, entrepreneurial activity has spiked, and resources for startups have proliferated. These include the Company Lab, a nonprofit accelerator that hosts Chattanooga’s annual Startup Week, and the INCubator, a massive 127,000-square-foot complex currently housing 55 startups, including 3-D printed builder Branch Technology, which has $9.5 million in funding. Today, it ranks 25th in the country for net business creation. Entrepreneurs are also drawn to the area because of its big city culture and small town vibe, says Alexis Willis, director of small business and entrepreneurship at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. “Hearing about Chattanooga's [high-speed] internet may have brought them here, but then they’re like, ‘I want to move my whole family here’ and they end up sticking around,” she says. --Cameron Albert-Deitch
According to the Executive Director of CO.LAB Marcus Shaw, the EPB Fiber Optic network turned a congenial city into one roaring for entrepreneurs. "The gig was the impetus for this next generation of entrepreneurship," Shaw said. "This modern era of entrepreneurship is less than 10 years old, and where we've come in 10 years is phenomenal."
CO.LAB works with startups, offering courses on the information and skills that help innovators breed success in new endeavors.
Startup Genome looked at these factors when considering what cities made the list:
- Job Creation
- Population Growth
- Net Business Creation
- Rate of Entrepreneurship
- Wage Growth
As late November arrives, so does the the holiday season for many of our readers. People reading up on local efforts to improve Internet access will be counting their blessings today, which inspires us to do the same. There are many things we have to be thankful this year.
As access to affordable broadband becomes increasingly critical in today's world, however, and as rates from the large Internet access companies continue to rise, getting online is more challenging than ever for folks with limited incomes. We want to express our appreciation for local communities who adopt policies to make high-quality Internet access available to lower income households through their municipal networks.
A Growing Awareness
Wilson, North Carolina, decided that as part of the community network's mission, they would offer fast, reliable fiber Internet access available to those living in public housing residences. Since then, we've seen other communities take creative approaches to ensure that everyone can use the network, not only those who are already better off. Municipalities that see the value of publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure understand the value of eliminating cherry picking as a way to tap into their undiscovered human capital.
Unlike large corporate Internet access providers, publicly owned networks don't need to maximize profit from every subscriber in order to please shareholders. They consider themselves in place for the public good. Munis can dedicate themselves toward digital inclusion efforts, which are in line with their mission.
During Digital Inclusion Week in October, we detailed some of the innovative approaches that local decision makers are adopting to ensure the least fortunate in their communities have access to the community's new fiber tools. Here are just a few:
In Hillsboro, Oregon, one of the first neighborhoods to receive gigabit connectivity through HiLight will be one of the areas of town where many folks don't have access to, or can't afford broadband Internet access. People there who qualify for SNAP, free and reduced lunches, or other income-based assistance...Read more
Multichannel News recently published an informative and detailed look at municipal networks and the surge in interest that communities have exhibited as they've explored ways to improve local connectivity. Author Mike Farrell provides an indepth examination some of the many local communities that have used fiber optic connectivity to attract job creators and some of the common challenges they've encountered.
Still Some Opposition
As Farrell notes, several candidates for President have mentioned funding for municipal networks in their platforms, bringing more attention to publicly owned Internet networks. The interest has been growing for some time, however, as has opposition. Farrell writes:
But no matter which side you’re on, one thing is increasingly clear: municipal broadband is gaining steam and some communities are finding innovative ways to finance and maintain projects. And the risk, as many areas are finding out, is becoming worth it.
When Farrell spoke with the NCTA - The Internet & Television Association (formerly the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), which lobbies on behalf of large and small Internet service providers, they indicated a dislike of competition:
“Broadly, we support government programs that dedicate money to building networks where they don’t exist or make economic sense for private ISPs to build, and believe that taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize competition where networks already exist,” NCTA senior vice president, strategic communications Brian Dietz said in an email message.
Here and There
Farrell covers communities where networks have been serving the public for years and in places where locals have only recently decided to make the investment. One of the places Farrell writes about, which many other authors have covered, is Chattanooga, Tennessee:
When municipalities want to talk about successes, they usually point to Chattanooga, which built its broadband network in 2009 and became the first municipality in the country to offer 1 Gigabit per second Internet service city-wide. That “Gig City” designation made the community a magnet for business. According to a study by the University of Tennessee, broadband helped drive about $1.3 billion in economic development...