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PBS Takes A Look At Internet Cooperatives

We aren’t the only ones noticing. As rural communities take control of their connectivity by banding together to form broadband cooperatives, their efforts are getting attention. Earlier this month, PBS News Hour featured a story on the Wired West and RS Fiber Cooperatives.

Ivette Feliciano visits with local residents, business owners, and community leaders in both western Massachusetts and rural Minnesota where both initiatives are rewriting the rules for rural dwellers. She visits with Jake Reike, a farmer from Renville County; he talked with Chris during the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #198. He described for us how improving local connectivity was what his family needed to maintain their farming lifestyle.

Feliciano also sought out expert Susan Crawford, who explained why people in these sparsely populated communities need high-quality connectivity and why they refuse to wait for big providers who may never come to their rescue.

Download a copy of our report RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative, to learn the details of one Minnesota farming region is bringing better Internet access to its people and businesses. There is much to be gained by joining forces.

For more on Wired West, we recommend WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build a Fiber Optic Network, from the Berkman Center. Crawford helped author that report that dives deeper into the situation in western Massachusetts.

Whip City Fiber Snaps To It: Yet Another Expansion In Westfield, MA

In the spring, Westfield, Massachusetts began to expand it’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, Whip City Fiber with a build-out to three additional neighborhoods. Earlier this month, Westfield Gas + Electric announced that they will soon expand even further to three more areas.

According to Dan Howard, General Manager of the utility, the demand for the symmetrical Internet access is strong:

"Every day we hear from residents of Westfield who are anxious for high-speed Internet to be available in their neighborhood," he said. "It's a great motivator for our entire team to hear how much customers are looking forward to this new service."

Gigabit residential access is $69.95 per month; businesses pay $84.95 for the same product but also get Wi-Fi for their establishments. Installation is free. If people in the new target areas sign up before August 31st, they will get a free month of service.

Like a growing number of communities, Westfield started with a pilot project in a limited area to test the level of interest for a FTTH network in their community. They are finding a high level of interest and gaining both confidence and the knowledge to continue the incremental expansion across the community. Other towns with the same approach include Owensboro, Kentucky; Madison, Wisconsin; and Holland, Michigan.

Westfield officials are asking interested residents and businesses to check out the pilot expansion page to determine if they are in the expansion area and to sign up for service. The page also explains how your Westfield neighborhood can become a fiberhood to get on the list for expansion.

For more about Whip City Fiber, listen to Chris interview Aaron Bean, Operations Manager, and Sean Fitzgerald, Customer Service Manager, from Westfield Gas + Electric. They spoke in June during episode #205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - July 19

California

Refund program to help expand broadband Internet service by Rachelle Chong and Lloyd Levine, Sacramento Bee

 

Colorado

Big choices ahead as Boulder pursues faster, cheaper broadband by Alex Burness, Boulder Daily Camera

Erie, Superior weigh municipal broadband ballot question by Anthony Hahn, Colorado Hometown Weekly

 

Massachusetts

Mount Washington gets $230K grant to deliver broadband access by Derek Gentile, Berkshire Eagle

The town has won a $230,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to support the construction of a fiber-to-home network that will deliver broadband access to the residents of this town. At this point, according to town officials, more than 60 percent of the residents of the smallest town in Massachusetts have committed to subscribing to the service.

 

bbd-cowboy-piglet.jpg

North Carolina

Waynesville enters agreement to expand broadband by Smoky Mountain News

Getting the Internet to everyone in WNC by Tom Vinyard, Citizen-Times

 

General

Why we need affordable broadband for anchor institutions and communities by John Windhausen Jr., Bloomberg Government & StateScoop

Bipartisan Senate group forms broadband caucus by Ben Munson, FierceTelecom

A bipartisan group of senators are joining together to launch the Senate Broadband Caucus, which will focus on broadband infrastructure and deployment and will address broadband issues affecting Americans, specifically increasing connectivity and closing the digital divide that particularly impacts rural America.

In these troubling times, senators unite to end America's big divide - rural v. urban broadband by Shaun Nichols, The Register

Leverett Releases RFP For ISP: Responses Due August 15th

Leverett, Massachusetts, has operated its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network since August 2015, working with Crocker Communications to bring Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity to residents and businesses in the Massachusetts town. The contract with Crocker is not indefinite, however, and the city has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer services on the network. Responses are due August 15, 2016.

According to the RFP, the ISP selected will have an exclusive agreement to provide services to the community as leverettnet.net. The community seeks a three-year contract and will begin on or before July 1, 2017. 

Leverett’s contract with Crocker Communications was also a three-year term, commencing in 2014. Releasing an RFP now will give community leaders eleven months to review submissions from potential providers and negotiate terms. With their own infrastructure, Leverett has the ability to take a discerning approach and explore other options from the RFP release.

RFP SCHEDULE: 

Written Questions Due: July 18, 2016 at 10 a.m. 

Answers to Questions Posted: July 25, 2016

Submission of Proposals Due: August 15, 2016 at 10 a.m.

Finalist Named: August 26th, 2016

Contract Award: September 2nd, 2016

Bridgewater State University Connects to OpenCape

CapeNet, the local Internet service provider, on the OpenCape community network is expanding in southeastern Massachusetts. Bridgewater State University will connect to the OpenCape network for more bandwidth and more reliable Internet access.

Connectivity for Education

Bridgewater State University needed to ensure reliable connectivity for its students because many university courses have online, cloud-based, or video components. In fact, nearly every school CapeNet serves requests more bandwidth each year, reports the Bridgewater Wicked Local.

Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Bridgewater State University, Raymond V. Lefebvre, summed up the importance of connectivity for education institutions: 

“We pursued this additional Internet bandwidth in support of teaching, research, collaboration, learning and our residence students.”

More Reliable, Higher Bandwidth

The university already has connectivity through another provider, but wanted a second fiber connection to ensure redundancy. Connecting to OpenCape not only increases bandwidth, but also improves reliability. The OpenCape network traverses an entirely different route than the university’s other fiber connection. 

If the first fiber connection fails (i.e. if the cable gets damaged or equipment goes down), students’ and professors’ work will not be interrupted thanks to the connection to the OpenCape network. The second connection will keep information flowing. Alan Davis, CEO of CapeNet, explained:

“Because the OpenCape Network has virtually unlimited capacity and was designed to eliminate single points of failure, it is a valuable tool for institutions like Bridgewater State.”

According to Lefebvre, Bridgewater also appreciates CapeNet's status as a local provider dedicated to working with public entities in the region. In March, we reported on CapeNet's upgrades at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, also connected via the OpenCape fiber network.

Another RFP: Egremont, Massachusetts

Egremont, Massachusetts, population approximately 1,000, is seeking a firm for design, engineering, and consulting services for a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. They released a Request or Proposals (RFP) in mid-May and proposal submissions are due on June 15th.

Small Town Seeks Big Connectivity

The community is one of the many rural towns located in the far western part of the state where high-quality connectivity is rare. Like Leverett, Mount Washington, and the Wired West communities, Egremont has decided the time to wait for the big providers is over.

The town is located near Mount Washington in Berkshire County and has about 950 residents and businesses and 47 miles of roads. It’s situated in a valley east of the Taconic Mountain Range and lies along the Green River. Similar to many of the other small towns in western Massachusetts, there are also a number of vacation homes in Egremont.

Egremont is seeking a firm that will develop a fast, affordable, reliable network to offer Internet access and VoIP. In their RFP, Egremont expresses a requirement that the new infrastructure connect to the state’s MassBroadband 123. For more details on what the community wants to see in proposal submissions, check out the RFP online.

Mount Washington Voters Ready To Fund Muni

With only about 150 full-time residents, it’s hard to get the big ISPs to pay attention to you, especially when you are situated in forest-covered mountains. The people of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, realize that if they want high-quality connectivity, they have to do it themselves. At a special town meeting in May, voters unanimously approved funding for a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Flying Solo In Western Mass

Earlier this year, the small community obtained legal authority to move forward on the project without establishing a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). State law requires municipalities to establish an MLP as the public entity to administer a city’s publicly owned network. Mount Washington considered it an unnecessary and burdensome requirement for such a small community; the legislature agreed. Since they decided not to join the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish MLPs, they don't need one. 

Mount Washington officials released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the spring and received seven responses. The town selected a firm to construct the network, for which they have already set aside $250,000 from the town’s stabilization fund. At the May town meeting, voters approved an additional $450,000 in borrowing and selectmen are working with a financial advisor to review options.

Selectman Brian Tobin told the Berkshire Edge that the community expects to be eligible for funding from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI); town officials are talking with the agency. The state organization announced that it will be working closely with Massachusetts towns on a case-by-case basis to disburse approximately $50 million in sate funding to improve connectivity. 

“Mount Washington Is Ready To Go”

In February, Tobin predicted that voters would support the project and he was right. At the time, he said that even those that were content with satellite Internet access appreciated the increased property value benefit of an FTTH network.

Apparently, his confidence was not misplaced. From the Berkshire Edge article:

“I feel we’re really far ahead,” Tobin said, noting the initial “take rate,” or customers who have committed to the service, is 91 out of 145 houses. He said fiber optics will run past every home in town so residents who haven’t yet signed up can be added on anytime. “We’re building it for everybody who wants it. We have a self-sustainable project here.”

“Everyone who voted [at special town meeting], voted to do this,” Tobin said. “Pretty much everyone wants to move into the 21st century and have a high speed fiber optic network. That is encouraging.”

Whip City Fiber Expanding - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 205

Last month we wrote wrote about the Whip City Fiber Pilot project in Westfield, Massachusetts expanding and this week we interview two people from Westfield Gas & Electric about the effort. Aaron Bean is the Operations Manager and Sean Fitzgerald is the Key Accounts and Customer Service Manager.

We discuss their pilot project, how they structured the services and pricing, and integrated the new telecommunications services into the municipal utility.

We also discuss whether the lack of a television option is limiting interest from potential subscribers and how they are picking the next locations to expand the network.

The sound effect we use in the intro is licensed using creative commons. We found it here.

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 18 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."

WiredWest: New Website

In western Massachusetts, 44 small towns continue the push for high-speed, high-quality Internet access. WiredWest (a cooperative of these town’s municipal light plants) has been ramping up the pressure on the state. They need funding to build a regional network, but a state agency has been reluctant to distribute money.

To update everyone on the ever-changing situation, WiredWest has launched a revamped website, focusing on the latest news and most relevant information. Bookmark WiredWest.net to keep informed.

WiredWest and MBI? It’s A Long Story

WiredWest began in 2010 as folks gathered together to bring better connectivity to their unserved and underserved communities.  They wanted a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network that would bring future-proof fiber optic technology into their homes. After years of working on business plans and creating a governance structure to represent all the towns, WiredWest hit a major roadblock erected by a state agency.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) is in charge of distributing state funding to project that will improve Internet access in the state. Previously, the agency had built a middle-mile network (which connects community anchor institutes and could serve as a backbone for FTTH networks). When WiredWest asked for state funding to help develop its fiber infrastructure, MBI stalled the process – to the point that even the governor’s administration got involved. The agency has made some decisions about which projects it will help fund, but its choices have been criticized.

A Berkman Center case study, WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build A Fiber Optic Network, delved into the story of WiredWest. 

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

For the latest on the situation, check out the WiredWest website, WiredWest.net, to hear straight from the communities most directly affected. In addition to news coverage, the cooperative offers reports, notes on recent meetings, and ways for you to support their efforts. 

Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous MuniNetworks.org stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!