We've covered an array of communities that have met the connectivity challenges brought about by the pandemic by setting up gap networks to help bring neighborhoods, students, seniors, and frontline workers online in places like Arizona, California, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. A recent NBC story highlights efforts in Dallas, Texas and Utah to do the same, suggesting that we'll see more of these networks stood up in the near future.
We've written a good deal about gap networks over the last year, in the form of neighborhood-based projects by local officials in partnerships with nonprofits as well as school district initiatives to get students connected as distance learning continues.
The Murray School district, located a handful of miles south of Salt Lake City, has undergone a hurculean effort of its own to stand up a 44-tower wireless network using the 3.5-3.7 GHz spectrum to cover all 6,000 students in the district (13% of whom had no home connection previously. The network, free to students, went online in early January. Read more about how it unfolded here.
2020 was a great year for Utah's UTOPIA network, with expansion in existing cities, more coming online, and people clamoring for service. The end of the year saw them pass a milestone, with 35,000 users on the network. Driven in part by the pandemic, but also the lure of fast, affordable Internet access, the network saw an increase in signups of 50%.
Listen to Episode 445 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to hear Christopher sit down with UTOPIA for more details.
In August we first covered the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s new Digital Navigator’s program, which provides a best-practices model for organizations looking to use local resources to help neighbors learn the skills and overcome their reluctance to getting online. This week on the podcast Christopher welcomes Paolo Balboa, Program Manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Shauna Edson Digital Inclusion Coordinator, at the Salt Lake City Public Library to dive deeper into the program and talk about lessons learned so far.
The group dives right into what digital equity means both in policy and practice, and how we can be more thoughtful about both. Paolo shares the history behind the idea of the NDIA’s Digital Navigator Program and how it came to fruition, helpfully, right at the start of the pandemic.
Shauna talks about the challenges Digital Navigators confront head on in communities, from helping residents overcome lack of familiarity with new devices, to learning to navigate the web, to connecting with local resources. Both Shauna and Paolo stress that successful forward progress will come from the presence of ongoing programs staffed by fellow community members, and Shauna shares the progress made in Salt Lake City so far.
This show is 32 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.
Read the transcript for this episode.
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This week on the podcast Christopher talks with Michelle Barber and Andre Lortz. Both serve on the Kaysville City Council and are members of the group Citizens for Kaysville Fiber, but today they join us to talk as regular citizens of the city of 30,000 in Utah.
Kaysville has been working to improve Internet access for years — some residents have good connectivity, but other parts of town are very poorly served. In 2019 it began considering a municipal network, and Michelle and Andre share the history of efforts to make forward progress as well as the moves made over the last twelve months. The city originally considered a model with a utility fee, but in the face of opposition ultimately decided for a bond approach which just saw a vote where the measure was defeated by less than 200 votes. Michelle, Andre, and Christopher talk about how it happened (including how major providers funded public relations campaigns to scare people away), and what the project’s continued support means for its future.
This show is 41 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.
Don’t forget to check out our new show, Connect This!, where Chris brings together a collection broadband veterans and industry experts live on YouTube to talk about recent events and dig into the policy news of the day.
Transcript coming soon.
Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on ...Read more
UTOPIA Fiber, the publicly owned, open access network, has begun a pilot wildfire-detection project which has the potential to provide safer, faster, less expensive service to communities in Utah, saving the state tens of millions of dollars a year in firefighting and other economic costs. The EDWIN Project (Early Detection Wildfire Imaging Network), currently in beta testing, pairs advanced thermal imaging cameras with the fiber network’s infrastructure to help firefighters in the region detect events in real time. The pilot project — currently deployed to Woodland Hills (pop. 1,600), Murray (49,000), and Layton (77,000) — just launched, with plans to expand.
The project’s focus right now is the Wasatch Front metropolitan area, where more than two million residents live. That’s 80% of the state’s population, and because the region is arid and hot in the summer it’s particularly vulnerable to wildfires.
The setup is simple: thermal cameras are placed at key geographic points in the region and connected to UTOPIA’s fiber network. The cameras, which look to be FLIR’s PT-series, scan the region continually and are used to provide real-time image processing at resolutions of up to 640x480 pixels. Should a reading hit 300 degrees Fahrenheit, a notification is sent to first responders, who can log into the camera’s perspective and confirm the presence of an out-of-control fire. They can then dispatch the appropriate units to the area.
“The EDWIN Project thermal imaging cameras are so advanced, they can detect a hot spot down to a pixel,” explained Roger Timmerman, executive director, UTOPIA Fiber.
Woodland Hills was the first to join; the community was devastated by wildfire damage in 2018. Firefighting typically relies on community members to call in and report an event, a system with a lot of obvious points of friction that can dramatically slow evaluation and response times. UTOPIA’s network allows instant notification and real-time video, which will reduce the latter. It will save participating communities, the...Read more
This week on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast Christopher talks with John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and Network Director for Spanish Fork Community Network in Spanish Fork, Utah. As John approaches the end of his career he reflects on the network's founding, its success over the last two decades, and the missed opportunities which stemmed from a 2001 law limiting municipal networks.
That Spanish Fork has achieved an impressive level of success is revealed by the numbers. In 2013, the utility had already paid off the majority of its debt and enjoyed a take-rate of 60% of the community of 35,000. In 2015, it began a fiber buildout to replace the hybrid fiber-coax neighborhood by neighborhood. By refusing to take on any new debt and focusing on neighborhoods with the most interest, the network was able to spend about a million dollars a year over the last five years, and is close to completion. Today SFCN enjoys a take-rate of 78% on its Internet service in the city of 40,000, with some neighborhoods subscribing at a rate of almost 100%. It continues to save Spanish Fork over $3 million a year, adding to the tens of millions it has already saved the community.
To what does John attribute their success? Community. Finding qualified, passionate people to build a network dedicated to the needs of people and businesses in the surrounding area. He highlights the utility's customer service and responsiveness to its users needs. Christopher and John consider the success of SFCN in the context of the the long-term consequences of HB 149, which in 2001 installed signficant new hurdles by preventing new municipal from providing services directly to residents and businesses like SFCN does. Finally, Christopher and John talk the importance of marketing, and using it as a way of forging community connections and creating messaging that fosters dialogue.
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UTOPIA Fiber announced last week that it had completed network construction in Layton, Utah’s ninth largest city. The announcement comes just in time for increasing reliance on home broadband connections as more people shelter-in-place in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Already, UTOPIA has seen a rise in sign-ups for its regional open access fiber network, even setting a new daily record. While some of the growth can be attributed to Salt Lake City’s booming population, many new subscribers point to the need to work from home as the reason they decided to sign up.
On Tuesday, UTOPIA’s sales team signed on 88 new subscribers, nearly doubling the network’s previous one-day record of 48. According to UTOPIA, most new subscribers said that the ability to work remotely — especially considering Covid-19-related restrictions and closures — drove their decision to connect.
In addition to the current pandemic, some of this increase is tied to population growth in the region. Since the new year, UTOPIA’s monthly sign-ups have hovered around 600-700, exceeding the network’s typical average of 500 new subscribers per month.
As we reported earlier today, many networks are starting to see growth in home broadband usage as workplaces and schools close across the county in an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus. However, it’s too early to say exactly how the Covid-19 outbreak will impact broadband subscriptions and Internet traffic going forward.
Building a UTOPIA
The completion of UTOPIA’s fiber network in Layton, worth $23 million, will bring increased access to vital online education, remote work, and telehealth services to the city of 80,000 people. Approximately one third of Layton households are already connected to UTOPIA’s open access network. They can subscribe to one of 11 Internet service providers offering speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second.
“Fiber connectivity cements Layton City as a great place to live, work, and play,” shared Alex Jensen, Layton City Manager, in...Read more
In recent years, co-ops and municipalities in Colorado have been making fiber optic network investments to provide connectivity so citizens can compete in the digital economy. With all this fiber deployment in Colorado, there are still extremely rural areas that lack access to broadband. With a little help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), people living in Dove Creek, near the Utah border, will soon have access to fiber connectivity.
Another Cooperative Receives ReConnect Funding
This fall and winter, we've reported on several electric and telephone rural cooperatives that have won funding through the USDA's ReConnect Program. In Dove Creek, Emery Telecommunications & Video, Inc., a subsidiary of cooperative Emery Telecom will extend service to the small community in Dolores County, Colorado. The co-op will use the $2.73 million grant to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to more than 500 residences, eight school district facilities, and public safety facilities in Dove Creek and in the nearby community of Monticello, Utah. Among the premises that will receive better connectivity will be farms, ranches, and small businesses.
Emery Telecom will add $1 million to the grant funding and anticipates completing the project within five years, although Emery CEO Brock Johansen believes they can finish deployment sooner. The demand is high, adding extra motivation to finish the project sooner. “We get a lot of requests for service out near the state line,” he said.
"Best Thing Since Pockets on a Shirt"
Neither residents nor businesses have options for Internet access in Dove Creek and and the only type of Internet access available are DSL and satellite. CenturyLink and EarthLink provide DSL service; neither cover the entire town. Dolores County Commissioner Floyd Cook told the Durango Herald in November that the county courthouse and the local high school, middle school, and elementary school have higher capacity connections, but no ISP provdies the same caliber of Internet access businesses or households. The Emery Telecom project is a welcome...Read more
UTOPIA Fiber will soon be branching out as they continue to forge partnerships with local communities in their region. In addition to expanding their own infrastructure, the organization is working across the state line to help Idaho Falls expand a municipal network.
Funding in Place
The Utah Infrastructure Agency (UIA) recently announced that it will provide $48 million to UTOPIA Fiber to facilitate expansion of the network. UIA is a separate entity, but the two operate as an integrat; leaders from both entities credit this approach for the growth of the network since 2009. According to a November 14th press release, UIA secured the funding with Lewis Young Robertson & Burningham, Inc. (Financial Advisor), KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. (Senior Managing Underwriter), and Gilmore & Bell (Bond and Disclosure Council).
Executive Director of UTOPIA Fiber Roger Timmerman said:
“We have the best partners in the business who have worked relentlessly over the past few months to get us to this point. The demand for municipally-owned fiber has skyrocketed and we are excited to be a leader in the industry. Over the past four years, UTOPIA Fiber has doubled the number of subscribers on its fiber network and has entered into partnerships with several additional communities.”
The newly acquired funding demonstrates a growing interest in open access fiber network infrastructure as investment. The UTOPIA Fiber network is currently an option for more than 100,000 premises, providing multiple options for households and businesses in a competitive environment. Other open access networks in locations around the U.S. are in the works, including publicly and privately owned infrastructure.
According to the press release, this is the fourth round of funding that UIA has closed on within the last year in order to meet demand and expand to additional communities.
Connecting an Expanding List of Communities
The town of Morgan City, which will be the 13th community in Utah to connect to the publicly owned open access network,...Read more