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And the Award for Community Broadband Network of the Year Goes to-- Ammon, Idaho!

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recognized Ammon, Idaho’s promise at the 2016 Community Broadband Awards. NATOA named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year

Innovative Ideas in Idaho

It's a great recognition for the innovative little city in Idaho. They have been incrementally building an open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for years. In 2015, they won an award for designing an ultra high-speed application to use the network to coordinate responses to school shootings. And earlier this year, they approved an ingenious funding method: a Local Improvement District (LID). Residents will have the choice of opting into the costs and benefits of the fiber project or opting out completely. 

A New Model

It's all about people's choice; Ammon’s open access model itself empowers community members. Instead of making frustrating phone calls with large corporations, residents can change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal. The infrastructure remains the same, and the providers focus on offering the best customer service. Ammon’s open access model is the virtual end of cable monopolies.

For more details, listen to Ammon’s Technology Director Bruce Patterson explain the project in Community Broadband Bits Podcast episodes 86, 173, and 207. For even more information, see our in-depth coverage on Ammon.

"YES!" RS Fiber Wins More Recognition

Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative is getting well-deserved attention from a variety of sources far beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes. In addition to kudos from experts in the telecommunications industry, their story was recently shared in YES! Magazine.

Innovative Partnership

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) announced that RS Fiber Cooperative had received that 2016 Community Broadband Innovative Partnership Award. NATOA President Jodie Miller said of this award and the other 2016 distinctions: “These pioneers were selected based on their extraordinary efforts, achievements and innovation in community-based approaches to broadband technology.” NATOA will present the awards in September at their 36th Annual Conference in Austin, Texas.

Earlier this summer, the communities that belong to the co-op were honored with an award from the Minnesota League of Cities.

YES! Magazine Profiles RS Fiber

Ben DeJarnette from YES! Magazine spoke with our Christopher Mitchell about the cooperative:

“I don’t want to say that everyone can do this, but a lot of places could do it if they had this effort,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t think anyone’s going to have to go through the same level of challenge again, because now there’s a model.”

DeJarnette's article described some the struggles of rural life with poor or absent Internet access based on our report, “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative”: farmers unable to share crop data with business contacts; local businesses with no access to online commerce; and school children with no way to complete online homework assignments. The article explains how the RS Fiber project is helping this collaboration of small rural communities overcome the rural digital divide.

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The article also dedicates sufficient coverage to the way the RS Fiber Cooperative is funding their infrastructure build. With no federal funding, and investment from community banks, this project is truly locally grown. From the article:

As long as local demand meets projections, revenue from the broadband network will more than repay government loans, and taxpayers won’t owe a dime. 

“That’s the win-win,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, who has studied the project. “It’s a model in which local governments can take on the risk if they’re willing, and local banks can get a very reasonable return.”

The Fifth Utility

Lisa Skubal, vice president of economic development for the Cedar Valley Chamber of Commerce spoke with DeJarnette about the roll that high-quality Internet access plays in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “From an economic development standpoint, fiber optic high-speed Internet is the fifth utility…We live in such a globalized society right now that having broadband connectivity is imperative for businesses.” Last year, President Obama visited the community to highlight the potential of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The RS Fiber Cooperative network has already attracted a new endeavor to the region. The Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine, attracted by the new fiber network, will be operating out of a building in Gaylord, one of the communities that belong to the co-op.

More On RS Fiber

Learn more about how farmers use this new utility and how the co-op has changed life in rural Minnesota in a recent PBS News Hour video, which features RS Fiber and a similar project, in Massachusetts, Wired West.

Get the details on the RS Fiber Cooperative from our report, free to download and to share.

You can also check out our other coverage, including Christopher's interview with Mark Erickson, City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director, and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke in Episode #198 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with Mark and Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz early in the process during Episode #99. You can find more at the RS Fiber Coop and Sibley County tags.

Gigi Sohn Celebrates Self-Reliance Among NATOA Members

In a September 9th speech to the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), Gigi Sohn, Counselor to the Chairman at the FCC, encouraged government officials to build their own networks. She told attendees at the annual conference in San Diego:

Without question, the landscape is changing for local governments, but in a good way. Most significantly, the future is not in cable, but in broadband. Even the cable operators acknowledge this.

Rather than wait for incumbent ISPs to build the network your cities want and need, you can take control of your own broadband futures. Rather than thinking of yourselves as taxers and regulators, which has been the traditional role, you can think of yourselves as facilitators of the kind of services you’ve been begging the incumbents to provide for years.

This is incredibly exciting, and I’m sure somewhat frightening. But the new model for local governments looks to benefit their citizens through externalities, not direct revenues. 

Sohn referred to networks in Sandy, Oregon, where gigabit connectivity is available for approximately $60 per month. She also mentioned the increasing role of partnerships like the one between Westminster, Maryland and Ting. Sohn commented on the changing approach at the FCC:

We are making changes of our own at the FCC to reflect the shifting broadband landscape and make sure that we seize the new opportunities and mitigate the challenges. For example, we pre-empted restrictions on community broadband in response to petitions from community broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Read more of Sohn's speech online at the FCC website.

P3 between Westminster and Ting is “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year”

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recently named the public private partnership (P3) between the City of Westminster, MD and Ting Inc. as 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year.”  NATOA will officially honor the partnership at their Community Broadband Awards ceremony in San Diego this week.  

In a press release NATOA praised the P3 “...for showcasing an entirely new approach in public private partnerships to reach the common goal of bringing next generation fiber broadband to communities while demonstrating the possibility of creative solutions.”  In Ting’s own press release announcing the award, they described their unique arrangement as private partners in Westminster’s initiative aimed at providing their rural community of more than 18,000 people with blazing fast fiber internet service:

“We have agreed to an open access model. For a period of time at launch, Ting will be both the exclusive network operator and the exclusive service provider. After that, while we will maintain the exclusive role of network operator, we will open up the network to competitive service providers. That gives Westminster the dual benefits of stability and competition. They know that the network will be managed competently by one closely managed relationship. They also know that their businesses and residents will benefit from having many providers competing to offer them the best service at the best price.”

As we wrote in our recent extensive piece about P3s, a company like Ting is seen as a useful partner with expertise that cities may not want to cultivate directly as broadband service providers. Cities like Westminster view such partnerships as offering the benefits of shared risk. Although the data and expert opinions are varied as to whether such partnerships actually offer a reduced risk for municipal networks, Ting’s parent company Tucows has proven itself a responsible and progressive telecommunications company. 

In a January 2015 podcast, we spoke to CEO of Tucows Elliot Noss about Ting’s enthusiasm to work with Westminster.  And in Episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast last May, Chris also talked to the City Council President of Westminster Dr. Robert Wack about the Ting/Westminster partnership.

Wheeler Praises Lafayette's Network Deployment at NATOA Conference

At the 2014 Annual Conference of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler praised Lafayette, Louisiana, home of muni LUS Fiber, during his keynote address. 

Wheeler addressed a variety of issues, including wireless broadband, the drive to increase competition, and a thoughtful transition to IP based 911 service.

While he did not address the pending petitions from Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Wheeler did express his admiration for LUS Fiber and the tough persistence of the local community:

However, I do encourage you to consider how local choice and competition can increase the broadband opportunities for your citizens. I love the story of Lafayette, Louisiana where the local incumbent fought the city’s fiber network tooth and nail, bringing multiple court challenges and triggering a local referendum on the project. Thankfully, none of the challenges managed to prevent deployment – sixty two percent of voters approved of the network in the referendum, and the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously sided with the city – but they did delay deployment almost three years. When the network was finally built, the community experienced the benefits of competition, as the local cable operator decided to upgrade its network. Local choice and competition are about as American as you can get.

We were pleased to hear the Chairman acknowledge the spirit of the community and how their efforts have paid off. Just this year, the community and its network attracted three new companies and approximately 1,300 new permanent and seasonal jobs. Lafayette has focused on improving its tech workforce in order to complement its next generation network - two critical ingredients to creating the Silicon Bayou.

Read more about Lafayette and LUS Fiber in our report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next Generation Networks.

For the entire text of Chairman Wheeler's key note address, check out the transcript PDF online. You can also read more about the NATOA Annual Conference, held this year in St. Paul, Minnesota's Lowertown. 

National Coalition Opposes Anti-Muni D.C. Legislation; Time to Call Your Rep!

The National League of Cities (NLC), National Association of Counties (NACo), and National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) joined together this morning to send a letter to Congress expressing their opposition to anti-muni legislation being discussed in the House.

As we reported yesterday, it is imperative that concerned constituents speak out against two anticipated amendments that can stifle local investment or end local telecommunications authority. The amendments are expected within the next few days, so we need to act now.

Appropriations bill H.R. 5016, introduced on July 2nd, provides funding for financial services and general government, including the FCC. H.R. 5016 will be the vehicle to force through language to further restrict community broadband networks.

The amendment most damaging to local telecommunications authority is expected to come from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The amendment's purpose is to remove authority from the FCC to preempt state laws preventing local broadband infrastructure investment. By restricting the FCC's use of its funding, the legislation will choke the agency's ability to explore its plan to influence anti-muni state barriers so local communities can decide their own fates.

As the NLC, NACo, and NATOA write in their letter to Congress:

The National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties (NACo), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) strongly urges you to oppose any amendment to HR 5016 that would hamstring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from taking any action on – indeed, even discussing – the issue of state laws that prohibit or restrict public and public/private broadband projects. It is clear that such laws harm both the public and private sectors, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, and hamper work force development.

...

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal, state, and local efforts are taking place across the Nation to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. 

State barriers to public broadband are counterproductive to the achievement of these goals. Efforts to strip funding from the FCC to even discuss this issue, let alone take action, are misplaced and wrong. Please oppose any amendment to HR 5016 or any other measure that could significantly impair community broadband deployments or public/private partnerships.

Contact your Representative's D.C. office today and tell them to vote NO on any H.R. 5016 amendment that negatively impacts community broadband, restricts the FCC, or impairs local authority over telecommunications decisions.

UPDATE: The Coaltion for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) also released a letter to Congress today. From CLIC's letter:

As Congress and the Commission have often recognized, ensuring that all Americans have reasonable and timely access to advanced telecommunications capabilities, particularly in rural and other high-cost areas, is “the great infrastructure challenge of our time.” Toward this end, Congress has assigned the Commission a central role in defining the relevant terms and standards and in identifying and removing barriers to broadband investment and competition. While preemption of State barriers to broadband investment and competition should be used rarely, in only the clearest of cases, it should not be ruled out categorically in all cases, as the Blackburn amendment would do.

At this critical time in our country’s history, we should not preclude or inhibit any potentially successful strategy that will enable our communities and America as a whole to thrive in the emerging knowledge-based global economy. Nor can we afford to take off the table any approach that may be necessary in certain cases to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition.

Read both letters below.

Local Government Groups: "We Need Local Authority"

As the FCC considers the role of local authority in expanding Internet access, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is hearing from coalitions opposing state barriers on municipal networks. On July 3, Executive Directors from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) sent Wheeler a joint letter of support [pdf].

From the letter:

The diversity of cities and counties in America also reflect differing values and needs. As such, Local governments should have the flexibility to address broadband and Internet access in a way that meets the needs of the people they serve.

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

The letter was close on the heels of a parallel Resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) at their June 22nd Annual Meeting. From the final Resolution:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Businesses Mount Opposition to Anti-Competition Cable Bill in Kansas

In a very quick turnaround, a number of prominent companies have signed on to a letter opposing the Kansas bill to block competition for existing Internet providers, like Time Warner Cable. Firms signing the letter sent to the Commerce Committee include Alcatel-Lucent, American Public Power Association, Atlantic Engineering Group, Calix, CTC Technology & Energy, Fiber to the Home Council, Google, National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, OnTrac, Telecommunications Industry Association, Utilities Telecom Council. The Committee will hear the bill on Tuesday morning. We understand that no recording or live streaming is planned.

Update: When originally posting this, I failed to credit Jim Baller - who organized the letter and works to preserve local authority, so communities themselves can decide whether a network is a wise investment.

We, the private-sector companies and trade associations listed below, urge you to oppose SB 304 because this bill will harm both the public and private sectors, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, hamper work force development, and diminish the quality of life in Kansas. In particular, SB 304 will hurt the private sector in several ways: by curtailing public-private partnerships; by stifling the ability of private companies to sell equipment and services to public broadband providers; and by impairing economic and educational opportunities that contribute to a skilled workforce from which businesses across the state will benefit.

The United States must compete in a global economy in which affordable access to advanced communications networks is playing an increasingly significant role. As the Federal Communications Commission noted in challenging broadband providers and state and municipal community leaders to come together to develop at least one gigabit community in all 50 states by 2015, “The U.S. needs a critical mass of gigabit communities nationwide so that innovators can develop next-generation applications and services that will drive economic growth and global competitiveness.”

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal and state efforts are taking place across the Nation, including Kansas, to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. SB 304 would prevent municipalities from working with private broadband providers, or developing themselves, if necessary, the advanced broadband infrastructure that will stimulate local businesses development, foster work force retraining, and boost employment in economically underachieving areas.

Consistent with these expressions of national unity, public entities in Kansas and across America are ready, willing, and able to do their share to bring affordable high-capacity broadband connectivity to all Americans. Enactment of barriers to public broadband initiatives, including SB 304, would be counterproductive to the achievement of these goals. SB 304 is also inconsistent with America’s National Broadband Plan, which calls on States to remove existing barriers to community broadband initiatives and to refrain from enacting new ones.

We support strong, fair and open competition to ensure that users can enjoy the widest range of choices and opportunities. SB 304 is a step in the wrong direction. It is bad for Kansas communities, bad for the private sector, particularly high-technology companies, and bad for America’s global competitiveness. Please oppose SB 304 and any amendment or other measure that could significantly impair community broadband deployments or public private partnerships in Kansas.

NATOA Keynote Panel Discusses Role of Local Governments in Improving Internet Access

In September, I joined the keynote lunch panel at the annual NATOA Conference to discuss what local governments can do to improve Internet access. Joanne Hovis moderated a discussion between Rondella Hawkins of City of Austin, Milo Medin of Google, and myself.

I have embedded the video below so it starts with the panel discussion. However, if you go back to the beginning, you will also be able to watch the annual award presentations, including one to Longmont in Colorado, as well as Milo Medin's 10 minute presentation prior to this panel discussion.

We discuss many important issues, particularly the various actions local governments can take to either build their own networks or to make the community more tempting to others who might build a network.

Port Angeles' "The Mesh" Up and Running

Citywide Internet will soon be available as a monthly service in Port Angeles on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Mayor Cherie Kidd, Police Chief Terry Gallagher, and Councilwoman Brooke Nelson participated in a ceremonial "cable cutting" event last week. The event was to celebrate the new network, nicknamed "The Mesh." Arwyn Rice, of the Olympic Peninsula Daily News covered the event in a recent article.

According to the Metro-Net website, a $2.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant funded part of the $3.7 million Wi-fi system. The network serves a dual purpose, serving public safety first responders and a separate level for public access. From the News article:

The public safety system allows police officers to track each other through the city so that they know where their backup is without having to call radio dispatchers.

They also can do their own searches on driver's licenses and license plates, check recent call histories and access reports, said Officer Erik Smith, who demonstrated the use of the system in his patrol car.

Eventually, the system will be patched into the city's security cameras and police car dashboard cameras — and potentially Port Angeles School District security cameras — so that officers will be able to monitor situations at City Pier from their cars at Lincoln Park, said Police Chief Terry Gallagher.

“The limitation is our imagination,” Gallagher said.

While access is free through October 31, OlyPen MetroNet will start offering a variety of plans on November 1. Mobile and fixed-point service will be available and range from $5.95 (some sources say $4.95) for one day to $37.95 per month. Every user will receive the first hour of Internet access free each day.

As we have often found, the spirit of collaboration and determination on a local level helped realize this possibility:

The extensive Wi-Fi system was possible because those creating the network had the cooperation of a utility system that already had the infrastructure in place, said Columbia Telecommunications Corp. founder and principal engineer Lee Afflerbach, who designed much of the system for the city.

The system that was created depended on the ability of the many public and private entities who were willing to work together, Afflerbach said.

“Port Angeles has unique character. It is small enough to work with but big enough to be real,” he said.

Afflerbach said he engineered the system for a major Silicon Valley city that initially expressed interest in a citywide Wi-Fi network but ultimately backed out.

“Port Angeles was the first to say, 'Do it,'” he said.

In September, Port Angeles received the 2012 Community Broadband Wireless Network of the Year award from NATOA for "planning and deploying an innovative, multi-use, multi-sectoral wireless network to serve public safety, consumers, local government and tribal needs."