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TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers

The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.

"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"

The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses. 

From page 13 of the report:

The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment. 

In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.

The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.

The report goes on to recommend other policies, including dig-once, smart conduit rules, and one-touch make ready. Some of these policies have been challenged in other states by the big incumbents, such as the AT&T fight in Louisville against one-touch make ready. It’s no secret that Governor Bill Haslam has been content to let these same corporate gigantaurs effectively run the show in his state for some time now. 

Business Critical

Beyond recommendations, findings from the study were also revealing. The press release from the TNECD stated that the study shows fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is especially important to Tennessee’s businesses:

Businesses participating in the assessment reported broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues. In addition, 34 percent of businesses classified broadband as essential to selecting their location, and 56 percent noted that it was essential to remain in their location. Sixteen percent of economic development agencies reported that businesses frequently chose not to locate in an area due to insufficient broadband. (emphasis ours)

Both business and residential participants cited reliability as the most important factor to them when analyzing their connectivity. Businesses also considered upload speed critical to their use of the Internet.

Urban vs Rural

While the survey determined that 13 percent of people in the state don’t have access to 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, the “vast majority” were rural folks. According to the survey, 98 percent of urban participants DO have access. Those would include people who live in places such as Chattanooga, Pulaski, and Clarksville - all towns with municipal networks.

The survey found a correlation between access to the Internet and a number of factors, four of which were the most prevalent:

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  • The economic status of the community 
  • Number of ISPs (level of competition)
  • Type of connection
  • Population density 

Removing state regulatory barriers would allow a number of these rural areas to partner with municipalities that have already invested in Internet infrastructure. Nowhere else is this situation more apparent than in Bradley County. Cleveland Utilities (CU), the electric, water, and sewer provider in the county would like to partner with nearby Chattanooga EPB Fiber Optics to bring fast affordable, reliable connectivity to customers but state law forbids it. Bradley County and a number of other rural communities have appealed to state lawmakers because it is a matter of economic urgency and educational necessity for their children. They are still waiting.

Bills to eliminate the state barriers have been introduced but while the number of State Legislators supporting them has increased, the movement does not have the force to restore local authority...yet.

Break Down The Barriers 

Haslam referred to his administration’s report as “a starting point” and TNED Commissioner Randy Boyd cautioned that, “Not every option included in the report may be the answer for Tennessee, nor is there one simple solution.” 

It must be hard to hold the line as expert opinion and evidence chip away at the flawed logic behind Tennessee's state barriers. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the laws do not benefit the people of Tennessee; they are in place strictly for the big cable companies and telcos that operate there.

For the full report, visit the TNECD website.

Glenwood Springs, Colorado: Fiber Frontier

Glenwood Springs was the first community in Colorado to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, the Community Broadband Network (CBN), and offer services to local businesses. The community, originally named “Defiance,” was also one of the first U.S. communities to have electric lights. Their open access municipal network has improved connectivity throughout the community and helped establish robust competition in this western frontier town.

Dial-Up Just Didn’t Do It; City Steps In

Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director at Glenwood Springs, spoke with Christopher Mitchell for episode #206 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and he shared some of the network’s history. Before community leaders chose to take matters into their own hands, Qwest (now CentuyLink) and AT&T were offering dial-up services to residents and businesses. The city approached the incumbents and asked them to make upgrades to improve local connectivity but were told by both companies that they had no plans to make improvements.

Bruce Munroe, former Director of Information Services, was interviewed in 2005 about the community's plan to invest in fiber and the incumbents' reaction. He said:

“When we started, we were told that it wouldn’t be profitable for them to provide service,” says Munroe. “But they also said ‘you can’t do it either.’ There was no interest in [pursuing] anything until we said we were going to do it.” Glenwood moved ahead anyway after its city council approved a municipal service plan based on keeping businesses in town. “We were protecting our economic base,” says Munroe, who noted that businesses were leaving because they didn’t have speedy access to the Internet. 

Farmer recalls that a citizens group formed to advance the prospect of publicly owned Internet infrastructure. While a plan surfaced to offer triple-play via fiber-optic connectivity to the entire community, pushback from local fixed wireless Internet access providers and other businesses eventually led community leaders to scale back. The city chose instead to offer businesses and community anchor institutions (CAI) connectivity via an open access fiber-optic network in 2000-2001 and use the backbone to create a fixed wireless network for residential access. While a number of private wireless providers used the CBN to offer residential services, the city did not actually offer fixed wireless directly to residents until 2009. According to Farmer, they never advertised and had less than one percent of the subscriber base.

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In his interview with Christopher, Farmer described some of the difficulties with the plan in a town the size of Glenwood Springs where there were already a number of wireless providers:

“[A]t that point we were directly competing with the existing wireless providers and many of them became resellers on our network”

There were a relatively high number of wireless providers offering services in Glenwood Springs - as many as seven at one time - which made the market very competitive. Farmer believes the town's population of a little less than 10,000 does not support a high number of competitors. Connectivity throughout the community is certainly better than it was before the public investment, but it has been a challenging journey, recalls Farmer.

As Farmer also noted in the interview, the open access model created problems when larger regional providers bought out smaller local ISPs. When providers on the CBN were not dedicated enough to maintain relationships with the customers they served the city felt the fallout. Customers encountered problems with the network and let their providers know, but the providers failed to promptly inform the Glenwood Springs Internet division. As a result, customers were frustrated and chose to cancel service.

Anchor institutions and businesses still connected via the fiber-optic network, but connecting included hefty installation charges. Over time, the city drastically lowered the connection charges, encouraging more businesses and institutions to connect to the CBN. Glenwood Springs has forged ahead to bring better connectivity to local businesses and CAIs and, while the city has had to contend with the problems of being one of several providers in a competitive market, the CBN has created an environment beyond one or two providers and prices are held in check.

City Savings

In addition to keeping prices reasonable for businesses and CAIs, the city is able to keep its own telecommunications costs down by self-provisioning. Farmer estimates that Glenwood Springs saves approximately $140,000 per year because it uses the CBN rather than obtaining comparable services from a private provider. He adds that, because the network adds redundancy, savings may actually be much higher; with a network that doesn't go down, efficiency is always optimal.

There are 25 municipal facilities connected to the CBN, including wastewater, water treatment, and electric department facilities. Glenwood Springs also uses the CBN to connect fires stations, the Community Center, and its Municipal Operations Center.

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Just as importantly, Glenwood Springs is able to budget because their costs are predictable. When local communities depend on big private providers for services, they are at a disadvantage because those corporations have the ability to increase rates and communities have little say in the matter. If a community has no alternate provider, they have no leverage to negotiate.

In Martin County, Florida, for example, the franchise agreement between the county and Time Warner Cable was coming to a close. The ISP planned to raise rates by more than 800 percent. Rather than submit to corporate piracy, the community partnered with the school district and invested in their own Internet infrastructure. In addition to taking control of their own connectivity decisions, Martin County and its parner are saving millions each year.

A Plan To Expand, A Vote To Reclam Autority

By 2008, the municipal electric utility had invested approximately $3.5 million to deploy the fiber system for communications purposes and the electric system. The city began to consider using the network for more than just business connectivity, possibly offering services directly to residents.

At the time, Public Works Director Robin Millyard said, “It’s like having a Ferrari in a garage on a gravel road.” The City Manager noted that the network was, “[A] tremendous asset available to this community that’s being underutilized.”

The city considered the possibility of selling off the wireless network and expanding the existing fiber-optic network to serve all businesses and households in the community in order to offer triple-play. The city had already commissioned a feasibility study to look at the plan. City leaders anticipated funding the $12 million expansion with a revenue bond.

By 2008, Colorado's SB 152 had passed the state legislature, so before the city could expand their offerings, the voters had to reclaim local authority through referendum. In April, voters passed the measure 707 to 605 in the single-issue election. The municipality now had the legal option to expand its network. If any future expansion required issuing a revenue bond or some other form of bond, the community would need to vote again to authorize the financing. After several months of study, however, the City Council ultimately chose not to pursue such a big project.

Instead, Glenwood Springs decided to begin providing direct Internet access to businesses, rather than only offering the fiber infrastructure on which third party providers could offer services to commercial subscribers. By working directly with commercial customers, the city was able to improve its reputation and take on more customers. The demand for services from the city has risen approximately 20 percent each year. He attributes the increased interest in the city’s efforts in part to better customer service.

The CBN Today And Tomorrow

Businesses can sign up for one of three tiers, with all speeds symmetrical so upload is as fast as download, a critical component of business Internet access.

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All tiers include a public IP address, no data cap limit, and no long term contract:

  • Fiber Optic 50 - 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $70 per month
  • Fiber Optic 100 - 100 Mbps for $105 per month
  • Fiber Optic 250 - 250 Mbps for $175 per month

Glenwood Springs CBN also offers Enterprise services that include speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) and private network connectivity with speeds as fast as 10 Gbps.

The fixed wireless service the city offers to residents is being discontinued because there are ample wireless providers in Glenwood Springs and because the equipment is outdated. Instead, the community is looking again at the possibility of providing connectivity directly to residents, this time via Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Glenwood Springs is engaged in the operations and maintenance phase of a pilot project that has passed 36 homes. The pilot project is testing the waters in one neighborhood; nine households have subscribed so far. Subscribers can choose basic service of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) upload and download (symmetrical) for $40 per month or symmetrical Gigbit service (1000 Mbps) for $780 per month. The pilot program cost just under $20,000 from the electric utility's existing budget.

An increasing number of communities are choosing to experiment with pilot programs, such as Owensboro, Kentucky, and Westfield, Massachusetts. As well as giving the community a chance to see the advantages of superior Internet access, thus raising demand, a pilot project provides the opportunity to resolve unanticipated problems with technology or administrative operations.

The Future In "Defiance" And Elsewhere In Colorado

They call themselves Glenwood Springs, but this western Colorado town of about 10,000 people have held on to the spirit of those who called it "Defiance." The people of the community are deciding for themselves the best course and following their own path. Each election season - fall and spring - more communities are asking voters to exercise that spirit by opting out of SB 152 and taking back local authority. Glenwood Springs was the first and has been joined by dozens of others; we expect to see more who choose to exercise their right to self-determination.

The Tacoma Click Saga of 2015: Part 4: Accumulating Spillover Effects

This is the last in a four part series about the Click network in Tacoma, Washington, where city leaders spent most of 2015 considering a plan to lease out all operations of this municipal network to a private company. Part 4 highlights Click’s often unseen “spillover effects” on the City of Tacoma’s economy and telecom marketplace over the network’s nearly 2 decades in operation, contributions that Tacoma should expect to persist and even expand in the future.

We published Part 3, an analysis of why the municipal network is positioned to thrive in the years ahead within the modern telecommunications marketplace on June 21st. In Part 2, published on June 7, we reviewed why Tacoma Public Utilities considered the possibility of leasing out all of the Click operations. On May 31, we published Part 1, which reviewed the community's plans for the network.

Part 4: Click’s Accumulating “Spillover Effects”

Regardless of any impending changes with Tacoma Click’s operations, it’s clear that the network has and will continue to support and enhance the overall economic interests and the public good in the City of Tacoma. “Spillover effects” - the benefits to the community that don’t show up clearly in any financial statements - tend to appear after communities developing their own municipal broadband networks.

Click’s spillover effects start with the broad economic development benefits that arose when Click appeared. Before Click came to town, Tacoma was a city in economic decline. Many businesses had fled downtown for the suburbs over the 50-plus year period after World War II. 

While we can’t give Click all of the credit for the city’s efforts to rebound from that period of economic downturn, analysts like the U.S. Conference of Mayors cite the $86 million Click network as a major component. The network was part of an ambitious and highly successful economic development effort in the 1990s that helped to revitalize Tacoma. In 2005, the Sierra Club named Tacoma’s revitalization effort one of 2005’s top 12 economic development projects in the nation

As part of Tacoma’s revitalization project, the city opened a new downtown branch of the University of Washington that remains successful today. And as we noted in a 2010 article about Tacoma Click, more than 100 high-tech companies arrived in Tacoma within a couple of years after the network launch. This means that many current Tacoma citizens also arrived in town through jobs that Click helped create.

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Broadband Competition Spills Over Too

A recent study from the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) shows that the arrival of a municipal network in a city typically improves competition in the local broadband market. That is, municipal networks tend to prompt private broadband companies to lower prices and improve services in places where there are municipal networks. Indeed, a Tacoma resident reported a few years ago that Comcast customers had been consistently paying about half of what Seattle Comcast residents were paying for the same services. It’s also likely that Comcast would have delayed its 2008 upgrade of its infrastructure in Tacoma if the city had never built Click in the first place.

This evidence suggests that, were it not for Click’s impact on the ISP marketplace, the city’s Internet services from private ISPs like Comcast would likely be slower and more expensive than they are today. If Click disappeared and the city had no municipal broadband service to compete with Comcast, citizens, businesses, and government agencies in the city could expect prices to increase while customer service declines.

What many people in and outside of Tacoma may not realize is that, like most community-owned networks, Click strives to keep prices for telecom services below market rates for the good of the community. The city of Tacoma also saves on telecommunication costs because it uses Click rather than leasing. Click has essentially contributed untold savings to the City of Tacoma.

So who would be the big winner if Tacoma decided to lease out Click to a private company? Tacoma businesses and residents? The private ISP that would take over the Click’s operations? Leasing Click to a private company would almost certainly benefit Comcast more than any other party. The company with the dubious distinction as both the largest media company in the world and a perennial contender for most hated company in America has the most to gain.  

Another Historical Moment for Click

As the importance of broadband access expands, we expect the City of Tacoma to see the wisdom in the words of Tacoma’s former mayor Bill Baarsma, who in 1999 described Tacoma Click’s historical significance for the city and its potential for the future:

“This is the single biggest economic decision the council has made since the turn of the last century, when the City Council decided to move forward with the construction of the first hydroelectric dam on the Nisqually River. Things are happening here that are happening nowhere else."

In the years immediately following Click’s launch, this municipal network helped the City of Tacoma to re-emerge from a decades long economic slump. The question facing Tacoma between leasing Click to a private ISP and keeping Click as a publicly owned and operated asset will once again culminate in a pivotal decision with far-reaching implications for Tacoma’s future.

Our observation of community-owned networks around the United States suggests that the benefits of keeping and remaking Click as a city-owned asset will only become more apparent in the years ahead. A renewal and restructuring of Click operations to meet the needs of the changing telecom landscape would help to optimize the network’s potential as a driver of local economic development and cost savings. These changes will allow the Tacoma leaders of today to carry on the legacy of the city officials who took the initiative to create the historic Click network nearly 20 years ago.

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Photo of Tacoma Skyline: Dean J. Koepfler, Tacoma News Tribune Staff Photographer, through Creative Commons

Photo of East 21st Street Bridge at Night: AFreeman, through Creative Commons

Fibrant Gets The "OK": Will Expand To Local Government, Manufacturers in NC

Salisbury’s fiber network, Fibrant, is about to connect to three more large customers in North Carolina.

The Salisbury Post writes that Rowan County government and two local manufacturing facilities will be connecting to Salisbury’s municipal fiber network. After considering the needs of several local manufacturers and the Rowan County Government, Rowan County Commissioners gave the necessary approval to expand Fibrant to serve their facilities.

Local Manufacturing Wants Fibrant

The manufacturing facilities, Gildan and Agility Fuel Systems, are both located outside of Salisbury’s city limits, but within Fibrant’s service area. State law requires they obtain permission from the Rowan Board of the Rowan County Commissioners to allow Fibrant to extend service to their location.

Rowan County government also wants to connect to Fibrant and the same law applies to them. The County will use Fibrant as a back-up to their regular Internet connection for a while before deciding if Fibrant should become their primary service service provider.

Meanwhile, Gildan and Agility Fuel Systems just want the high-speed and reliability of the Fibrant network. Gildan is a Canadian manufacturer that makes activewear clothing. Since 2013, the company has worked to expand its existing yarn spinning facility, bringing skilled manufacturing jobs to the region. Agility Fuel Systems makes alternative fuel systems for large trucks. Currently, Agility Fuel Systems uses a connection speed of 20 Megabits per second (Mbps). Fibrant can offer capacity connections up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps).

The Agility Fuel System’s North Carolina Director of Operations, Shawn Adelsberger, actively pushed for a Fibrant connection. According to the Salisbury Post, Adelsberger wrote to Rowan County in May:

“Such connectivity will help us to maintain our networked manufacturing equipment, to maintain operation for our global customers and to not have product deliver risk due to network slowdowns and interruptions.”

A Bit Of A Process

Connecting to Fibrant is not easy outside of Salisbury’s city limits. A 2011 North Carolina state law prevents the creation of new municipal networks and imposes restrictions on existing ones. Fibrant cannot extend outside of its service area, and any extension has to go through several layers of approval.

Although the two manufacturing facilities and most of Rowan County are technically within Fibrant’s service area, Rowan County still needs to approve any new extension of the fiber network. After that, each Rowan County municipality must also authorize any Fibrant extensions into their city limits.

After the County Commission approved the expansion, Fibrant Director Kent Winrich told local media, "In my opinion, this is a big deal for economic development for Rowan County.”

Dark Fiber Available In Lewiston But Rivers Slow Expansion

The Port of Lewiston’s dark fiber network is up and running and now has connected a commercial customer, reports 4-Traders, but achieving the maximum reach has hit some resistance.

Warehousing and distribution company Inland 465, is operating a 150,000 square-foot warehouse and obtaining Internet access from First Step Internet, which leases dark fiber from the Port of Lewiston’s network. Community leaders hope this is the first of many commercial customers.

Last summer the community announced that they intended to deploy an open access dark fiber network to spur economic development opportunities. The network plan called for a connection to nearby Port of Whitman’s fiber network, which has operated for more than a decade.

Bumps On Bridges

According to 4-Traders, the Port of Lewiston is encountering issues deploying over the optimal route for expanding to serve more commercial clients. The community is near the Clearwater and Snake Rivers and must cross bridges en route to connect with nearby networks in the ports of Whitman County and Clarkston. Both communities have their own fiber networks and would like to connect to Lewiston’s new infrastructure. The collaborations would allow a larger loop and better redundancy for all three networks.

The Port of Whitman has an agreement with Cable One to use the provider's hangers on the bridge across the Clearwater River. In exchange, Cable One is allowed to access certain Port of Whitman County conduit on a different bridge. The state of Idaho issued the permit to Cable One to allow them to install the hangers and now the Port of Whitman County is applying to the state to have those same permits issued in its name. Once the Port of Whitman County has the permits, the Port of Lewiston will be able to use the hangers to connect to the Port of Whitman County network.

CenturyLink's Conduit...Or Is It?

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In order to achieve the maximum reach, Port of Lewiston officials and Port of Clarkston officials will have to contend with a less-than-eager CenturyLink. There is ample conduit space on the Southway Bridge that crosses the Snake River, but the incumbent provider controls all of it. The 20 conduits on the bridge are legacies from the time when it was part of AT&T. 

Clarkston Port Manager Wanda Keefer told 4-Traders that CenturyLink is only using five of the 20 conduits and the Port of Lewiston would like to take advantage of that empty space to link up to the Port of Clarkston’s fiber-optic network. Before they can do that, however, they have to learn more about CenturyLink’s rights to be on the bridge and where on the bridge any potential ownership may end. In order to obtain that information, the Port of Clarkson filed a Freedom of Information Act with the bridge builder, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Wires Have To Go Somewhere

The situation in Idaho underscores the importance of access to rights-of-way and fiber routes, be it bridge, boulevard, or pole. New York State, filled with bridges and opportunities to host dark fiber over waterways, has its own Bridge Authority that deals with such issues. In Minneapolis, the Park and Rec Board are stalling deployment of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network as a local ISP seeks to bury conduit in boulevards that are off limits due to protective agency policy.

Occasionally, incumbents take advantage of pole ownership or dispute pole position to delay municipal networks as a sabotage strategy. Frontier did as much in Lake County, Minnesota.

According to Clarkston's Keefer, however, there are agreements in place that all the ports consider priority. Port of Lewiston and Port of Clarkston have set a September 1st target date for having the connections linked and communicating.

"Lafayette Pro Fiber Blog" Lives On!

In January, our friend John St. Julien from Lafayette, Louisiana, passed away. Without John to help organize the people of Lafayette, the LUS Fiber network would not have had the strong grassroots support that made the project a success.

One of the ways John helped get the project going and spread the word about the many benefits of a municipal fiber network was through the Lafayette Pro Fiber Blog. The blog was a collection of resources, writings, and comment fights that shed light on the local issues that affected, and were affected by, Lafayette's previously poor connectivity and the municipal fiber network project.

The blog is a walk through one community's historical record as they took the initiative to invest in their future.

Even though John St. Julien has passed on and the fight for LUS Fiber is over, we want to preserve the record as an important historical document. We have obtained permission from John's loved ones to keep the blog archived online. Those who are new to the story of Lafayette, LUS Fiber, and John St. Julien, now have access to the stories that helped the community make the smart choice and move forward. The blog and its posts are archived here. Unfortunately, we only have stories from the beginning of the blog until 2011. 

As an educator, John knew that teaching people on the front lines was the best way to garner support for a movement to improve local connectivity. He used the blog to raise awareness about a range of matters from basic telecommunications terminology to the shady astroturf techniques meant to misinform voters. For a decade, John used the Lafayette Pro Fiber blog to set the record straight on incumbent lawsuits, strategic delays, and twisted criticisms. The resulting LUS Fiber network has brought jobs to the community, inspired affordable Internet access for all, and saved public dollars.

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In order to celebrate John, his family has established a fund with the long-term goal of establishing an endowed chair in the education department at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, with connections to work involving educational technology.

In the words of his family:

We envision a professorship being awarded to someone with extensive work in technology, who will promote cross-discipline work by the university, i.e. involving the computer science department, the Moving Image Interdisciplinary Group, our high school technology academy, etc. 

You can donate to the fund online or via mail at UL Lafayette Foundation, P.O. Drawer 44290, Lafayette, LA 70504-4290. Contributions should be marked for the "John St. Julien Endowed Fund for the School of Education." Checks should be payable to UL Lafayette Foundation.

Be sure to check out our stories on Lafayette and don't miss Chris's interviews with John about community organizing during Episode #94 and Episode #19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Glenwood Springs Shares Lessons Learned - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 206

Last week, while at my favorite regional broadband conference - Mountain Connect, I was asked to moderate a panel on municipal fiber projects in Colorado. You can watch it via the periscope video stream that was recorded. It was an excellent panel and led to this week's podcast, a discussion with Glenwood Springs Information Systems Director Bob Farmer.

Bob runs the Glenwood Springs Community Broadband Network, which has been operating for more than 10 years. It started with some fiber to anchor institutions and local businesses and a wireless overlay for residential access. Though the network started by offering open access, the city now provides services directly. We discuss the lessons learned.

Bob also discusses what cities should look for in people when staffing up for a community network project and some considerations when deciding who oversees the network. Finally, he shares some of the successes the network has had and what continues to inspire him after so many years of running the network.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 21 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Kane County's Fiber Is Open For Business In Illinois

Kane County, Illinois, is hoping its fiber-optic network will attract more businesses looking for better connectivity. As it turns out, they've had the resources for some time but are now making more of an effort to market the benefits of their publicly owned network.

Sharing The Savings, Services, Speeds

In 2011, reports the Chicago Tribune, the county took advantage of road reconstruction and in a coordinated effort, Kane County and the Kane County Department of Transportation deployed fiber along one of its main thoroughfares, Randall Road. Since then, the county has expanded the network to approximately 47 miles, connecting county facilities in five area cities. Kane County contributed $1.5 million to the construction of the underground network that now offers 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) capacity.

Since eliminating leased lines, institutions and facilities connected to the network have reported better performance, improved services, and significant savings. For example, Geneva School District 304 needed higher capacity to comply with new state requirements:

The district was paying $9.15 per megabyte for 500 megabytes, which amounted to $54,900 a month, he said.

The district was able get 1,000 megabytes for $24,000 per year through a provider on Kane County's fiber optic network — receiving double the service at half the cost, he said. [emphasis ours]

"From our perspective, it was a win-win," [County CIO Roger] Fahnestock said. "The reseller is working with them and are able to work with them and get this off the ground and get the school district what they needed."

The County hopes to draw in more economic development and increase competition. There are already several companies that take advantage of existing fiber to offer varying services, including connectivity for academic research, colocation and cloud storage, healthcare, and at least one provider that uses the network to provide backhaul in order to offer fixed wireless Internet access to residents and businesses. 

In order to promote the network, the county recently launched a new website that allows interested entities a way to find information.

The Aurora Neighbor

Kane County’s fiber connects with the OnLight Aurora network. Much like the Kane County network, Aurora’s fiber deployment served a dual purpose - better connectivity and traffic control. In Aurora, the city had deployed some fiber on their own, which helped secure federal funding for traffic control. They were able to use that funding to eliminate the debt on their existing network and speed along the process of connecting more entities and upgrade the existing network.

FTTH In The Future?

None of the current partners are providing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service but in the new website’s About Us section, officials address the benefits of FTTH and acknowledge it as the gold standard. At a Kane County Leaders Summit, Chairman Chris Lauzen expressed the hopes Kane County leaders have for the network:

"We intend to light up Kane County in the most positive way."

BBC World Service Visits Chattanooga

Over the past few years, a number of media outlets have spotlighted Chattanooga’s rebirth from “dirtiest city in America” to a high-tech economic development engine. Recently, the BBC World Service produced “Chattanooga - the High Speed City” an episode in its Global Business Podcast series.

Peter Day presents the 27-minute story, described by the BBC as:

Chattanooga has been re-inventing itself for decades. In the late 1960s Walter Cronkite referred to the city as "the dirtiest in America." Since then heavy industry has declined and, to take its place, civic leaders have been on a mission to bring high-tech innovation and enterprise to Chattanooga. In 2010 the city became the first in America to enjoy gig speed internet following an investment of a couple of hundred million dollars from its publicly-owned electricity company, EPB. What economic and psychological benefits have super-fast internet brought to this mid-sized city in Tennessee? Has the investment in speed paid off? 

In the podcast, Day interviews a number of people who describe how access to the fast, affordable, reliable network offered by EPB Fiber Optics has benefitted the community. The story includes interviews with business leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, and others who recount how the community’s Internet infrastructure has influenced their decision to locate in Chattanooga. The Times Free Press covered the BBC podcast in detail and reprinted an excerpt from Mayor Andy Berke:

"The city that I grew up in in the mid 1980s was dying," Berke told the BBC. "We held on to our past for too long. We're not the best at something and that's really important for a community. When you are the best, that changes how you look at things and allows you to take advantage of and utilize your resources. Chattanooga was a community that didn't have a tech community."

You can listen to the podcast on the BBC World Service Global Business website.

Minnesota Broadband Grant Program Gets Funded, Issues Remain

The Minnesota Legislature has just approved $35 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program for fiscal year 2017, the largest annual appropriation in the initiative’s two-year-old history.

But the Legislature’s action still falls short of dramatically helping bring universal, high-speed Internet connectivity to all non-metro Minnesotans. Try to find a Representative or Senator that doesn’t talk about how important rural Internet access is, but compare that list to those who are actually voting for solutions. The Blandin on Broadband website captured a glimpse of this dynamic in a recent post

Nice Gains And Noticeable Failures

The Legislature headed in the right direction this year to increase overall funding for broadband development. But we believe the Legislature’s action, which is moving at a snail’s pace, won’t help thousands of residents and businesses in Minnesota’s non-metro communities hurdle over the connectivity chasm. 

The state’s elected leaders also made changes to the program – some good and some bad – in the way projects are selected and the challenge process. 

Funding Fizzle? 

First, the funding fizzle. In its first two years, the state awarded about $30 million to 31 Border-to-Border projects. But that has been a miniscule appropriation compared with the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband’s estimate that Minnesota’s unmet broadband need is $900 million to $3.2 billion.

And the Legislature’s $35 million funding for the broadband grant program for the upcoming fiscal year seems particularly paltry given that the state has a projected $900 million budget surplus. 

“We are disappointed with the [broadband funding] number and the incredibly restrictive language” on eligibility for grants, said Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, (GMNP), a non-metro economic development group established in 2013 that successfully lobbied for the creation of the Broadband Development Grant program. 

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During the 2016 legislative session, the GMNP supported Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendation that the broadband program receive $100 million. The DFL-led state Senate favored $85 million for 2016-17 while the Republican controlled House supported spending $15 million. The House wanted to invest far less and argued for keeping most Greater Minnesota Cities ineligible for grant funds. GMNP’s support was contingent on language changes in the statute that would make grant eligibility easier for non-metro cities. 

“Without major reforms to the eligibility for funding we assumed it would be difficult to get to the $100 million that Gov. Dayton and Lt. Gov. [Tina] Smith wanted,” Dorman said in an end-of-the session update website post to his members. 

Language Issues

Second, the ongoing language challenges with the Border-to-Border Program. “With 85 percent of people living in cities not eligible for [Broadband Development Grant] funding, it’s hard to get people excited [about the program],” Dorman told us. The Partnership; a 90 member group of economic development authorities, foundations, cities, nonprofits, businesses, and Chambers of Commerce; maintains the broadband program’s rules and criteria inadvertently harm the very cities that conceived the program. 

Established in 2014, the Broadband Development Grant program was designed to “bring high-speed Internet access to unserved or underserved areas of the state” and help provide opportunities to help existing businesses and attract new ones. The Legislature, in its 2016 legislation, reaffirmed that an unserved area is one where households or businesses lack access to wireline broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC definition of broadband which is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

Because the grant program has focused heavily on unserved areas, it has largely ignored the majority of cities that are “underserved,” those that have some Internet service, albeit poor, Dorman said.

This has created what the Institute for Local Self-Reliance described in our policy paper “Minnesota’s Broadband Program: Getting The Rules Right” as “donut holes,” where a city has much poorer service than its surrounding rural areas.

Our fear is that towns with a moderate level of current business investment could lose that as businesses flock to more rural areas where the Internet infrastructure is better. Other investment would follow and the small cities in Greater Minnesota would find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s an unintended consequence that policy makers need to consider. 

Fortunately, lawmakers listened to the GMNP, the Star Tribune, and us as they established rules for funding this session.

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In our policy paper, we recommended that the Border-to-Border fund should set some portion – less than half – of its funds aside for applications that would target the underserved population centers and blend them in with nearby unserved areas. Those business and industry centers are the economic heart of many regions and they need modern connectivity for Minnesota to thrive. 

Dorman said one significant victory in the newly-passed state broadband grant law is that $5 million of the $35 million appropriation will be set aside for areas that currently have speeds greater than 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up but less than 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. That $5 million will be available to communities that need better broadband service to boost economic development.  

In a statement to MuniNetworks.org, officials from state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) said:

“Given the increased interest in the [grant] program, we expect to see a very competitive pool of applications this round, and using the results of previous rounds, expect to see over 12,000 homes and businesses served with wired service as well as increased wireless coverage in some areas of the state.” 

"Still," DEED officials admitted, “It is difficult to estimate how many will be left unserved after this round, given that there is private and federal investments also being made across the state. DEED continues to gather data from the providers and federal sources and will have an updated estimate of the gap in July, 2016.”

The federal “investments” are largely from the Connect America Fund, which has is effectively wasting billions of dollars on antiquated DSL service.

Disappointing “Challenge Process”

On the downside, the Partnership was disappointed in a provision in the broadband law pertaining to a “challenge process” that allows a telecom company to stop a project from receiving a grant if that company currently provides or even promises to provide service at the low state speed goals, Dorman said. This legislative language is a slight reform of the previous “right of first refusal” language, which had been included in the House broadband bill.

“This [challenge language] provision in the bill could make it difficult, if not impossible, for projects seeking to upgrade existing broadband service to receive a grant,” Dorman said. “We will have to see how this all plays out.”

Dorman sees the “challenge process” language as a tool protecting telecom companies “that don’t want to invest” in their Internet networks. 

“Any broadband provider in the area can object” to an applicant’s request for grant funding, Dorman said. This is potentially more open-ended than the old language that gave this challenge authority only to incumbent providers in an area, he said.

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In a statement, DEED officials told us: 

“The current challenge language was introduced to more accurately reflect the process that is already part of the program and to clarify that it is the state that will determine whether or not a challenge to an application is valid, not a provider.  This process was modeled after a federal system that was used in the distribution of the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] broadband stimulus funds to address the desire to avoid making public investments where private investments are already being made that meet or exceed the goals of the program. The new aspect that has been added to the process is the allowance of near-term construction plans that meet state standards as a valid basis for a challenge. This is to account for the added presence of CAF (Connect America Fund) II investments. Added protections were also introduced so that if construction commitments aren't met as outlined in the challenge, the provider may be barred from issuing future challenges. DEED retains the authority to determine the validity of any challenge.”

Whatever the reasons for the legislative changes, Dorman decried the lack of opportunity for public comment on the “challenge” language.  

“It is a major change from current law and people had very little time to react interpret and comment on the House bill and no opportunity to comment on the agreed-upon language that made it into the final bill.” 

Meanwhile, Dorman blamed industry telecom lobbyists for convincing state lawmakers not to support the language changes sought by Partnership. “This [new Broadband Development Grant law] was written with the help of the [telecommunications] industry," he said. 

Speed Goals Lagging 

In another area, GMNP leaders also believe the state’s connectivity speeds goals are not aggressive enough. Under the law, the state’s goal is that “no later than 2022,” all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to minimum speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up and the minimum service goals in 2026 should be 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

“To say 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps is an acceptable standard is ridiculous,” Dorman told us. “This is equivalent of 1990s dial up service.  We need to step this up.”

That position resonates with us. In our policy paper we said:

“When it comes to its goal, Minnesota should recall the danger of aiming low: you might hit the target. Minnesota should establish a stronger goal and then actually fund the program to achieve it. 100 Mbps symmetrical by 2022 would be both ambitious and worthwhile.”

Moving forward, Dorman said his organization may have to re-evaluate if there is a better and faster way to get high-speed Internet connectivity to greater Minnesota if dramatic improvements don’t come soon to the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program.