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Stark County, Ohio's Fourth Utility: Feasibility Study Complete

The results of a study are in and its authors recommend Stark County invest in a regional middle mile fiber-optic network, establish a broadband authority, and take other significant steps to keep the county from falling behind in today’s economy.

The Fourth Utility

The county has relied heavily on manufacturing and retail in the past but as those opportunities dry up, young people are moving away and the future is in jeopardy. Healthcare is another strong industry in the region, but access to high-quality connections is now a must-have for hospitals and clinics. Elected officials also recognize that diversifying the local economy to lure companies that offer higher paying positions will bring new blood to Stark County.

In order to attract new commerce to Stark County, Ohio, they formed a Broadband Task Team (SCBBTT) in the fall of 2014. They have adhered to the philosophy that connectivity is a “fourth utility” and should be treated like electricity, water, gas, or sewer systems. In May, the SCBBTT hired a consultant to perform a feasibility study; the firm presented its findings and recommendations on October 12th.

Consultants Offer Results, Recommendations

Consultants analyzed the amount of fiber in the county and reviewed the state of connectivity for businesses and residents and found both lacking.

Incumbents include local provider MCTV, which offers cable TV, Internet access, and phone services over its coaxial fiber network. Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable assets in the area, and AT&T offer cable and DSL but the feasibility revealed that there is very little fiber connectivity for residents or businesses.

They recommend that the county employ a six-pronged approach:

  • Formalized Broadband-Friendly Policies and Standards
  • Develop a Carrier-Neutral Middle-Mile Fiber-Optic Backbone
  • Expand Connections to Regional Data Centers
  • Equip Economic Development Areas with Fiber Connectivity
  • Target Businesses in Close Proximity to Fiber Backbone
  • Develop Last-Mile Investment Framework to Facilitate Development of Retail Residential and Business Services

Their estimate of the cost for the proposed 130-mile backbone is approximately $22.5 million and would connect 140 community anchor institutions. Design of the network should also put fiber within 1,000 feet of more than 8,000 businesses to facilitate later expansion. The consultants estimate the project would pay for itself in 15 years and after 10 years would generate $5 million in revenue annually. After 20 years, the project should be generating approximately $22 million per year.

Middle Mile Strategy


The consulting firm propose the middle mile strategy as a way for local communities within Stark County to establish their own fiber initiatives. Municipalities could use the county infrastructure to connect to any of three data centers within the region. According to the Executive Summary, analysts calculated that the SCBBTT vision to connect every property with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the county in one swoop was out of reach. From the report:

A $330 - $400 million investment to buildout a FTTP network throughout Stark County is unlikely at this point due to economic conditions and political will, however, a measured, strategic approach to making incremental investments in the County are likely to be supported if an actionable roadmap is clearly delivered. 

Waits For No One

The county of about 376,000 people is located in east central Ohio; Canton is the county seat. Fifteen percent of the county’s residents live at or below the poverty rate, above the national average of national average of 13.5 percent. More than 18 percent of the population is over the age of 65, also higher than the national average. Elected officials have seen both those numbers on the steady incline in recent years.

"We can't afford not to do this," [Stark County Commissioner Richard] Regula said. He believes that county commissioners should review the proposals and take the lead on the project.

Jackie DeGarmo, co-chair of the task team, said local leaders must decide if they have the "political will" to move forward with the plan. There's a need to create a broadband authority, she said. "A digital world is not going to wait for us."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 223

This is episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Eleven communities in Northern Utah are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network, UTOPIA. Perry City's Mayor Karen Cronin and UTOPIA's Executive Director Roger Timmerman join the show. Listen to this episode here.

Karen Cronin: We don't have the money that some of the lobbyists are getting from big companies, but we have a voice and I think that our legislatures will listen to local voices if they have the courage to step forward.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, also known as UTOPIA, began serving north-central Utah in 2004. The regional open access fiber-optic network has had its share of challenges since launch, but has slogged through them to now bring healthy competition to residents and businesses in 11 communities. Joining Chris this week are the mayor of one of the UTOPIA cities, Karen Cronin from Perry. Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA, is also part of the conversation. Our guests share stories about how competition has benefited local businesses and residents. They also describe infrastructure sign-up choices they have as property owners in a UTOPIA community and what it's like to have more than one or two ISPs at your feet. Now here are Chris, Mayor Cronin from Perry, and Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with two wonderful guests from the state of Utah. Roger Timmerman is the executive director of UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency. Welcome to the show.

Roger Timmerman: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell: Perry City mayor, Karen Cronin. Welcome to the show.

Karen Cronin: Thank you. I'm delighted to be part of the conversation.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to talk more about what's happening in Utah today. You've all been trailblazers in open access approaches. Roger, I think you were only of the early trailblazers who's now back with UTOPIA. Today we'll talk about the results, particularly in one of the UTOPIA communities, Perry City. Let's start there. Mayor Cronin, can you please tell me about your community and the internet access you have there?

Karen Cronin: Yeah. Let's start with what the community is like. Perry City is a small city, about 5,000 residents. It's located about 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. Six months ago we had very limited options for internet. We had some of the neighborhoods who didn't have any option except for dial up. At my house, we were on a satellite system where I was getting 5Mb speed. Fast-forward a few months and we were able to connect into the direct line with UTOPIA, the direct fiber line, and I now have upwards of 250Mb of speed, as does the whole city. The city was built out in less than four months. We've gone from a dial-up system to the cutting edge of what's available.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's remarkable. I'm sure that there are many people listening who would just love to have that kind of capacity available. Roger, can you help fill in some of the gaps for people who might be unfamiliar with UTOPIA? What is it?

Roger Timmerman: UTOPIA, we're a group of 11 cities. Perry City is one of those cities. These are cities that felt like they were not being served by the incumbents. Just wasn't enough options. They felt the negative impact of businesses leaving their communities in some case and just not offering the type of connectivity that they felt was needed to develop businesses and residences. They got together, they created UTOPIA and UTOPIA's an interlocal governmental agency, which is made up of these cities, and they built a massive backbone to connect these cities together and can collectively bond for the construction and operations of this network. The reason they did it that way was if you think of a city the size of Perry City, it's a great city, but it's not very large. The ability to put into place the fiber of the home system and operate that, get providers in there, it would be very difficult for just one small city to do. Collectively, the cities could get an economy and scale together to attract service providers, to get an efficiency of operations that would make this work. UTOPIA's had a difficult path. Initially, it started up and ran into some funding obstacles. The cities have since decided, let's fix some of these things and move forward. It was about five or six years ago, we took down a new model and took down additional debt and with that we've been very successful so for the last six or seven years UTOPIA has actually been able to build networks where the revenues from the builds of those networks are covering all of the debt service for the cost of building those networks and so we are in a great state now where we are now covering all of our operational expenses and all of the incremental debt we've taken justifies and sustains the growth of the system. Well, Perry City is one of these cities that's benefited from that in the sense that it hasn't really cost Perry City any additional money other than their original membership in the system and the collective funding of the cities but we've been able to build out that entire city and we're building out very rapidly in other cities in parallel. The nice thing about Perry is the whole city is covered. They can all get the same gigabit service. We install gigabits to homes and businesses typically. Larger businesses will get 10 Gig. Some very large connections we support are 100 Gig. In a city like Perry, it's very rural, but they can attract enormous investment from a data center or a large business or an industrial partner or something because we can deliver 100 gigabit anywhere in that city and actually offer that in a redundant way because of this redundant backbone put in collectively by these cities.

Karen Cronin: In Perry City we have a great number of home businesses. The demographics of Perry City, although it's small, it has the highest education rate for its' members and a lot of those people work from home. Having this option has brought even more people into the city and we have people calling and telling me that they have now had their bosses ask them if they can work from home because their home connection is faster than their at work connections and they get more done.

Christopher Mitchell: That's remarkable. I always like to hear that. I have to say that one of the things I love about UTOPIA and Roger, I'm sure you can't pick favorites but I can, I love that UTOPIA gives small providers like Xmission an opportunity to have many more customers. Xmission has been a guest on this show before, I think they have wonderful privacy policies, very bull-ish. I like seeing cities that have small, historic ISPs like Brighamnet also being able to expand and get more customers and thrive. I think that's an important role from my point of view, that UTOPIA really allows local businesses to be very competitive with the big companies with Comcast and CenturyLink that I happen to have here, where I'm recording this and I know you have out there, that don't always meet local needs in a way a local provider can.

Roger Timmerman: I agree. That's a major part of why we do it the way we do it. Open Access is not easy and it's taken quite bit a of time for UTOPIA to have a good, stable, competitive environment of providers and today we have 10 companies that compete residentially and about 25 that compete on the business side of things. Perry by itself even if they had fibers at home they may not naturally attract competition on that system but because of the scale of UTOPIA it's big enough to attract this level of competition and enable lots of these local providers and also some bigger providers to all kind of compete under a fair fiber infrastructure put in place by some of the cities.

Karen Cronin: That point is so important because it creates such a win-win for the residents by having an open network system. It creates the competition and it requires the service to be great and the price to be competitive if they are going to stay on the system and be competitive but it also allows like you said local businesses to be able to play at the same arena that some of the big businesses do and have a fair shake so it is a win-win all the way around.

Christopher Mitchell: Mayor Cronin, do you know of any personal anecdotes of people who have talked about how they are amazed that Perry City has this incredible connectivity available to them and it's enabled them to succeed in ways they might not otherwise have been able to.

Karen Cronin: I can tell you about a business that produces things from the home and then sells them out. They were telling me that before their Internet power didn't allow them to have the mass marketing they wanted and be as responsive and have the service level that would sustain their business. Since they've been able to connect to UTOPIA and have the ability to shop around for what suited their business best as far as a provider, they've been able to see their Internet sales increase dramatically.

Christopher Mitchell: Roger, I'm curious. If I'm a resident or a business in Perry, getting connected to you is just a little more different to what most people are used to. Can you walk me through my options as a homeowner on how I'd possible connect to Utopia?

Roger Timmerman: If you live in an area where UTOPIA is available, you can go to our website, put in your address, and it will pull up and show you, here are the services available to you from 10 different companies. It's a shopping cart of services. So, what happens is you sign up for the infrastructure from UTOPIA and we present the retail offerings from our partnered service providers so you kind of sign two agreements. You're getting infrastructure from the city and UTOPIA collectively and then Internet or phone or video or whatever those services you want bundled from the service provider. So you, two pieces and then how you pay for your fiber connection, a lot of our customers will say, "well, I'll just lease that monthly for 30 bucks and there's a 2 year term so it looks a lot like what you'd get from other options". We have some people who take a different option and that's where they essentially own their fiber connection. They pay up front a larger amount, $2,750 is actually the amount and then they never pay for it again. They own their fiber and then it just becomes, a very low bill because then they're only paying $35 to their service provider and it'll never go up after that. If you're leasing the connection from us, it starts at about $65 a month for 250 Megabit connection. I say that as an example of what we have right now but we don't control those prices. The beauty of it is that it is competitive and those retail providers are free to change their prices whenever they want to be competitive. We struggle because we try to publish the pricing and then they change it. It's a struggle but it's also the beauty of competition is that they're constantly coming up with different promotions and lowering and raising and adding options and they have the freedom to do that and that's one of the beauties of open access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things as an outside observer that's impossible to miss is you have, in your region, a nonprofit organization that I suspect largely gets contributions from CenturyLink and Comcast that paints a picture that people in Utah are very frustrated and angry that UTOPIA wasn't able to pay its way in the way it was expected. Now, Mayor Cronin, I'm just curious. Do you get a sense from your citizens, are they glad UTOPIA exists or would they prefer that they didn't have these options and they didn't have to hear these claims that the network is not good?

Karen Cronin: I will be honest with you. As Roger has mentioned, it's had a tough start and it was a new idea, a very forward thinking idea and for the first few years we were paying into UTOPIA collectively as one of the original 11 member cities and we were getting 0 service and that was hard. We still get a lot of comments from residents but about 3 years ago we as the 11 cities came together and said we need to make this system work and we talked through several options and like Roger said we got to the point where we were able to start funding build out and things. Once we had the build out and once we took it to our residents which was last February and told them where we had come, I have heard nothing but positive, nothing but positive since February when we rolled it out. We had a town hall meeting, we told them where we had come and the obstacles we had overcome and at that point we were able to roll it out that it was totally optional. If people wanted it, great. If they didn't there wouldn't be any extra assessments to them. Once they saw the competitive advantage it gave them because of the number of people on the network and having the fiber direct to their home it has been phenomenal excitement in the city.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm not too surprised to hear that. I've seen that in other places as well. This is an infrastructure that's going to last a long time. I look back, a number of the airports that cities built many decades ago, they took a long time to break even but people were generally glad to have them available. One of the things people often realize is you were among the first to be doing this. The lessons you learned really helped a lot of other communities to be successful in terms of structuring their programs and learning lessons about how to move forward. So, I think, in some ways, the mistakes you made were a bit of a public service in terms of teaching others a lesson. One of the other things I want to talk about as we are running out of time with the time we have left, some of the problems you faced weren't your fault. The state made it hard on you. Roger, I'm wondering if you can tell us a little about the ways of which the state, I think, acting on behalf of the big companies that you're competing with, actually put its thumb on the scale to make your life more difficult.

Roger Timmerman: Yeah, one of the things was, the prohibition on us offering services directly. We like the idea of open access but it would be possible to provide some of the services directly while still allowing competition on the network. It was a big curveball at the UTOPIA cities to get legislation that showed up from a legislator that wasn't even in the cities involving UTOPIA that put all these restrictions on what cities could do and all this additional process and red tape that they'd have to go through to get the product in place. The legislation, what has been used as an example, since then, of how to go buy some legislation. It wasn't even in the conversation in Utah among citizens and legislators, it was brought in and given to legislators to push in behalf of a private interest.

Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Greeley wrote a great article in Business Week many years ago and it's titled, "Psst... Wanna Buy a Law?" If people Google that, I have no doubt they'll find it. It's exactly how you describe it and it's worth reading, but please continue.

Roger Timmerman: That was the initial obstacle. Open Access, we like it, it does provide a scalability issue. There's less dollars coming to UTOPIA to cover our investments. It's a good model, it's a more difficult model. The biggest problem UTOPIA has had has been financials. It's been a problem for us. Since that time, it seem like every year or two years another piece of legislation shows up trying to further restrict what we can do and it's a fight. We don't have a budget like the private companies do to go and lobby and push for influence at a legislation level. It's really an interesting contrast because among residents, populations in our cities, and businesses even, UTOPIA is extremely popular and the incumbents are some of the most hated companies in America. Along legislators, the incumbents are really popular, you can imagine why that is because of, whether it's campaign contributions or influence among different groups.

Christopher Mitchell: Weekly golf trips?

Roger Timmerman: It's night and day between the citizens and legislators and what their interactions are with the incumbents.

Christopher Mitchell: Mayor Cronin?

Karen Cronin: I remember a couple years ago when there was a piece of legislation that was going to pass that was going to greatly affect the way we could promote the UTOPIA's, the 11 cities and the 11 cities banded together and went to talk to the legislature. It was because of that, the local involvement that the legislators listened and gave us a bit more time and didn't pass that legislation. I can't emphasize enough how important it is -- if people want local control then the local elected officials need to be involved and make things happen. We don't have the money that some of the lobbyists are getting from big companies, but we have a voice and I think our legislators will listen to local voices if they have the courage to step forward.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's a really good point. It's not enough to just be right, you have to make sure you're raising your voice up as local elected officials and just citizens to say this is our point of view. Because, as we discussed, the legislators, they hear from the big companies every day. They need to hear from multiple constituents every day on these issues as well in order to even just think they're similar in terms of important, in terms of policy preferences. I think we're about out of time but I'd love to give you another chance to say anything else you'd like to say as we finish up our discussion. Let me start with you Roger.

Roger Timmerman: It's an exciting time in the space of municipal fiber. What we've seen in our own area is that the demand for this service is higher than it's ever been. We started this thing back in 2002 and back then people were still trying to figure out what Fiber was and what the benefits were and there was a major population that didn't use it. Now it's a given. Everyone wants Internet connectivity and they don't just want it, they want good speeds and good service. Over time it's been legitimized and we've seen that in the form of increased demands and then we see, where's the rest of the industry, where's the incumbents and other options and it seems that they're actually falling further behind. We go back ten years and these guys weren't the most hated companies in America. Things have gotten worse for them, not better. Rather than upgrade and compete, we see an increased and deliberate effort to stop municipal progress building Fiber projects, and so it's good in the sense that the success and demand for municipal fibers have increased but there's an increased threat because there's a lot of work being done to preserve incumbent interests. It's great, we're seeing successes here. Our financials are better, we're in a position that we're actually growing faster than we have in our whole history. Things are good. We have other cities looking to partner with us in other ways and that wasn't a conversation we weren't able to have because of the past difficulties. I think you'll see UTOPIA continue to grow and be successful and I think you'll see efforts like UTOPIA across the country and have success.

Christopher Mitchell: Parting thoughts from Mayor Cronin?

Karen Cronin: I think in the world we live in today we are seeing the rate of technological advances is at warp speed. In order to be competitive and stay at the forefront, we need to allow the free enterprise system to work and not put legislation in place that may limit that free enterprise system. I would put Perry out there as one of the success stories. A small rural community of 5,000 and yet now we have the capability through the UTOPIA network and the open market to be able to have 100 Gigabit connections and redundancy and multiple providers and that puts us on the map to be able to support some of the biggest companies that are looking at trying to locate in the West. It's a great thing and we've benefitted enormously.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you both for taking time to come on and share your experiences and the message of hope coming out of Northern Utah.

Karen Cronin: Thank you for allowing us to talk to you Chris.

Roger Timmerman: Thank you Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Mayor Cronin from Perry and Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA talking with Chris about the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency. Check out their website at to learn more. We also have a number of stories about UTOPIA on Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at Email us with your ideas for the show. Send a note to Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow's stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all the podcasts in the ILSR Podcast Family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your Podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song “Bodacious” licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to Episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Update on Utah's Open Access UTOPIA - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 223

In the north central region of Utah, eleven communities are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network operated by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency or UTOPIA. UTOPIA’s Executive Director, Roger Timmerman, and Mayor Karen Cronin from member community, Perry City, take time to speak with us for Community Broadband Bits episode 223.

One of the great advantages UTOPIA has brought the region is the element of competition. Rather than facing a choice of only one or two Internet Service Providers like most of us, people in UTOPIA cities sign up for a connection to the network and then choose from multiple providers who offer a range of services via the infrastructure. Competing for business brings better products, better prices, and better customer service.

Since launching in 2004, UTOPIA has faced financial uncertainties created by onerous state laws that force a wholesale model on publicly owned networks. Regardless, Mayor Cronin has seen the network improve connectivity in her community, which has improved the local economy and the quality of life. After working with the network since the early days, Roger sees that UTOPIA’s situation is on the upswing but has witnessed firsthand how those harmful state laws limiting local authority can put a smart investment like UTOPIA in harm’s way.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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

This show is 25 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 mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
H. R. Trostle
Christopher Mitchell

North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.

Download the Report

The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.

The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers. 

In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.

"It's not as if these communities have a choice as to what they're able to do to improve their Internet service," says report co-author Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There's a demonstrated need for high-quality Internet service in rural North Carolina, but the state literally refuses to let people help themselves."

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks. You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

From The Report:

  • Despite significant tax subsidies from the state and federal government, North Carolina's private providers are building their fiber-optic networks only in certain metro areas and none in rural regions.
  • Only 12 percent of North Carolina's rural population has a choice for their broadband access, the rest are stuck with only one option and no control over their Internet prospects.
  • All of North Carolina's telephone cooperatives are investing in fiber for members in their service territory, some have entirely replaced their copper lines with fiber-optic. 
  • While North Carolina has 26 electric cooperatives capable of bringing fiber-to-the-home to rural residents, a 1999 state law (N.C. Gen. Stat § 117-18.1) limits the co-ops' access to capital for telecommunications projects.

Download the Report

Finance Leader Turns To RVBA

Now that the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) has its fiber-optic network offering services to local businesses, smart companies that want fast, affordable, reliable connectivity are signing up. The latest is finance company, Meridium, which was recently acquired by GE Digital.

We recently interviewed CEO and President of the RVBA, Frank Smith, who described what it’s like to be “the new kid on the block.” The RVBA has faced some opposition and dealt with highs and lows during deployment, but as news of the network spreads, we expect to see more press releases like this coming from the Roanoke Valley:

Meridium, Inc., the global leader in asset performance management (APM) software and services, announced today that they will rely on the Roanoke Valley's new Municipal Broadband Network to power the Internet and data transport service for their headquarters in downtown Roanoke. This announcement follows the 100% acquisition of Meridium by GE Digital announced September 14th.

"Meridium is deeply invested in this community, and we are committed to supporting the efforts of our local government to continue to invest in the technology infrastructure of the region," President and CEO Bonz Hart said. "The RVBA's open-access, carrier-grade network will help us keep up with the speed of industry and remain cost competitive as we serve clients all around the globe."

Meridium anticipates significant benefits as they switch from their incumbent internet service provider to the RVBA network.

"Faster speeds, lower costs, better customer service, greater security... what is not to like? We're really excited about what the RVBA is doing for our region and proud to sign on as an early customer," CTO Eddie Amos said.  "We have done well in the region with what has existed prior, but we need higher-end technology. High-speed fiber-to-the-door connectivity is critical to our continued global success."

Grant Gets Project Going In Sanford

Sanford, Maine’s plan to build a municipal open access fiber-optic network just got the shot in the arm it needs to move forward. On September 27th, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded the community $769,000 in grant funding to complete the $1.5 million project.

Mightiest Muni In Maine

About a year ago, we shared details about the plan to deploy what will be the largest publicly owned fiber-optic network in the state. The 45-mile network will run through Sanford, but will also travel through Alford, Kennebunk, and Wells and will connect to Maine’s statewide network, the Three Ring Binder. “We’re creating the fourth ring on the 3-Ring Binder,” said City Manager Steve Buck, in a recent Journal Tribune article.

The city of Sanford will own the infrastructure and GWI, headquartered in Biddeford, will operate the network. GWI does not have an exclusive agreement, so other providers could also offer Internet access or other data services over the infrastructure. For the time being, the network will serve primarily community anchor institutions (CAIs), government facilities, and business customers.

GWI also intends to offer residential Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to properties along the fiber route in areas where there is sufficient demand. They will make Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) symmetrical connectivity available so speeds will be the same for download and upload. Other providers may use the backbone to offer similar services; the backbone will have 10 Gigabit symmetrical capacity.

Economic Development Needed

For the time being, serving businesses and boosting economic development are the main priorities. Sanford has a history in textiles and manufacturing, with the population stagnating around 20,000 over the past two decades. Community leaders hope to diversify the economy by encouraging entrepreneurship and help Sanford grow. The network will serve downtown's Mill Yard complex, a 600-acre industrial park, and at least 80 additional sites including the Southern Maine Health Care (SMHC) Goodall Campus, local schools, and a new technical center, now under construction.

The EDA grant will fund approximately half of the cost of the project. Sanford will pay for the remainder with proceeds from a recent sale of a retired school property. They had considered using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in the past, and have not completely ruled out the possibility, but the EDA grant provides secured funding that may eliminate the need to consider TIF.

More Information Available

Sanford officials hope to begin construction next spring and estimate the project will be complete within 12 months. You can learn more details about the SanfordNet Fiber project from their new fact sheet.

For more on Sanford and municipal networks in Maine, check out episode #176 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher talks with Fletcher Kittredge from GWI, who describes Sanford, and also discusses some other projects in Maine, including the Tree Ring Binder.

Dark Fiber, Free Wi-Fi, Startups in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Missouri law has severely restricted municipal networks, but local entrepreneurs decided to create their own fast, affordable, reliable community connectivity. The City of Cape Girardeau has made new plans in its Marquette Tech District: free public Wi-Fi and a tech-hub for startups. Although the city is already home to more than 100 large employers, city officials want to also encourage small businesses and entrepreneurship. Underneath all the possibilities is publicly owned dark fiber.

The Marquette Tech District will utilize the City of Cape Girardeau’s dark fiber to connect the new tech-hub and provide free public Wi-Fi. The project hopes to bring new vitality to the Marquette Tower building, a center of the city's old economy, transforming it into a space for new technology-based companies. Local entrepreneurs have created a nonprofit to develop the project and the local Internet Service Provider (ISP) Big River Communications is on board. The city, meanwhile, owns the essential infrastructure - the fiber.

A Nonprofit Drives Development

The Southeast Missourian has followed the development of the project since its inception. From the planning process to obtaining grants, the newspaper has unraveled the complex collaborations across several institutions and levels of government.

The City of Cape Girardeau, population 40,000, has always been a regional commercial hub on the Mississippi River in southern Missouri. In the late 1920s, travelers could stay downtown at the upscale Marquette Tower hotel. More than 100 employers in the city each provide jobs to more than 100 people, including Southeast Missouri State University and several healthcare systems. Community leaders hope the new tech district will attract and retain young professionals; the university next door is an excellent resource for educating and keeping a talented tech workforce.

Local entrepreneurs realized that they could unlock the potential of the city's dark fiber. They created a nonprofit, the Marquette Tech District Foundation, to improve quality of life, accelerate economic development, and provide connectivity in Cape Girardeau. The Foundation developed a plan through an agreement with the city council and a $200,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority, a federal-state partnership.

Details and Dollars

The Foundation has three main goals:

  1. Take advantage of the city’s dark fiber.
  2. Install more fiber downtown for the tech-hub.
  3. Develop free public Wi-Fi.

Downtown small businesses will also have access to affordable high-speed connections. In July, the city council approved the agreement with the Foundation for the use of the dark fiber and for the installation of a new fiber line. 

According to the agreement (July 5, 2016, Resolution No. 2995, Bill No. 16-111), the Foundation will own the hardware to “light” the fiber, but the city will own all of the fiber, including the fiber to be installed by the nonprofit. All plans and specifications must be approved by both the Foundation and the city, ensuring local control. 

The Foundation has up to two years to install the new fiber and commence the public Wi-Fi project. If the Foundation doesn’t follow through, the nonprofit will pay $25,000 to the city to install the fiber. If the Foundation fails to deliver on its promises, the city will install the fiber itself and recoup some of its expenses from the Foundation.

The entrepreneurs behind the Foundation, however, have a strong interest in completing their part of the agreement. The nonprofit's executive director is a cofounder of Codefi, a successful co-working space and tech incubator. Codefi is also an anchor tenant of the renovated Marquette Tower tech-hub. Local Internet service provider Big River Communications also agreed to provide gigabit (1,000 Mbps) Internet service to the Marquette Tower.

In early August, the Marquette Tech District received a $200,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority. The authority is a federal-state collaboration established in 2000 by an act of U.S. Congress to promote economic development in the eight state Delta Region. The funding will cover planning costs and connecting the public spaces. 

While announcing the grant, Mike Marshall, the alternate federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, spoke about the potential of the Marquette Tech District: 

"Cape Girardeau is an important economic and entrepreneurial hub for Southeast Missouri, so we are proud to make this investment in boosting digital connectivity for students, residents and businesses with fiber optic cable in the downtown area."

For more information on the Marquette Tech District, check out their video below.

Port of Ridgefield Receives Grant for Feasibility Study

Ridgefield, Washington, a community of about 4,800 located about 25 miles north of Portland, is one step closer to establishing a dark fiber network for the Port of Ridgefield after taking advantage of state funding for community revitalization. On September 15, the state’s Community Economic Revitalization Board approved a $50,000 grant for the project, and the city has approved matching funds to initiate the planning process. 

“A unanimous decision by the board to award us the grant in the full amount we applied for is much appreciated,” Port of Ridgefield vice president of innovation Nelson Holmberg said. “It recognizes our disciplined approach and smart policy we’ve established as we work to ‘light up’ the Discovery Corridor.”

As planned, the dark fiber infrastructure would include the Ridgefield Port District (also called the Discovery Corridor), reaching the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and Washington State University Vancouver. While the port is not interested in operating the infrastructure, several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be able to compete to provide services through leasing space on the public fiber network.

Eugene Encouraged: Expanding Fiber Project

For the past year, Eugene has worked on a pilot project to bring high-quality connectivity to businesses in its downtown core. Now that community leaders and businesses have seen how a publicly owned network can help revitalize the city’s commercial center, they want to expand it.

The Proof Is In The Pilot

The project is a collaboration between the city of Eugene, the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG), and the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB). As we reported last year, each entity contributed to the project. EWEB owns the infrastructure and uses its electrical conduit for fiber-optic cable, reducing the cost of deployment. EWEB also has the expertise to complete the installation, as well as manage and operate the infrastructure. They lease dark fiber to private Internet service providers (ISPs) to encourage competition over the shared public infrastructure. 

The pilot project brought Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to four buildings in the pilot area. Vacancy rate for those four building is at zero while typical vacancy rate in Eugene is 12 percent. Matt Sayre of the Technology Association of Oregon (TAO) notes that speeds in one of the buildings, the Broadway Commerce Center, increased by 567 250 percent while costs dropped by 60 40 percent. TAO joined the other pilot project partners in 2015.

The Search For Funding

The expanded project will cost approximately $4 million to complete. In June, the City Council approved a measure to make the project eligible for Urban Renewal Funds. Urban Renewal is another label for what is also known as Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which has been used in other places for fiber infrastructure. Bozeman, Montana; Valparaiso, Indiana; and Rockport, Maine, all used Urban Renewal or TIF to help finance their builds.

Eugene provides a helpful explanation for Urban Renewal on their website; they describe it in three steps:

Step 1 - The District is created . The value of ALL the properties inside the district is calculated. This becomes the frozen base amount of property tax for the area.

Step 2 - Redevelopment and Improvements. Public and private investments generate improvements. As property values increase, all new tax revenue above the frozen base amount go to the urban renewal fund to reinvest in the area.

Step 3 - District is retired. Once the City Council is finished investing in the area and the debt of the district has been repaid, the district is retired. Property taxes are distributed among the taxing districts.

Eugene offers more information about Urban Renewal and how the city applies it to help revitalize strugging areas. They also provide this illustration:


The city will also apply for federal Economic Development Assistance Program Investment grant funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The grant they pursue requires a 50 percent match which will include Urban Renewal Funds and the value of EWEB’s existing electrical infrastructure. In July, Eugene and its partners submitted a pre-application and the EDA invited them to submit a full application; they hope to obtain approximately $2.1 million.

Residents, Too!

Businesses are not the only ones expected to benefit form the community investment. The expanded project area also includes several multi-dwelling units (MDUs), and the network will help improve the city’s free Wi-Fi:

Anne Fifield with the city of Eugene says three low-income housing projects are in the service area, and she has been in communication with the building managers. One of the goals of Eugene’s broadband plan, she says, is to “bridge the digital divide” and bring internet access to low-income households. An added bonus, she says, is users of the city’s free wifi should eventually see an increase in speeds.

If all goes according to schedule, the project will be completed in late 2017 or early 2018.

Medina County Aims to Be Mecca of Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 220

Medina County has built a fiber network to connect its core facilities and leases its fiber to multiple ISPs to improve connectivity in its communities. David Corrado, CEO of the Medina County Fiber Network, joins us to discuss their approach on Community Broadband Bits episode 220.

We discuss how the Port Authority became the lead agency in building the network and the challenges of educating potential subscribers on the benefits of using a full fiber network rather than the slower, less reliable connections they were used to.

Medina's approach allows carriers to buy lit services or dark fiber from the county network. And as we have seen elsewhere, the biggest challenge can be getting the first and second carriers on the network. After that, it can really pick up steam as other carriers realize they are missing out if not using it.

At the end of our interview, we added a bonus from Lisa - she just produced a short audio segment about Pinetops losing its Internet access from the city of Wilson in North Carolina.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

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Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."