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Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, UC2B issues RFP: Intent to Respond Letters Due August 29

The Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband non-profit (UC2B) owns a community network in the southern Illinois sister cities of Urbana and Champaign. In 2009, these cities partnered with the University of Illinois to create the non-profit UC2B to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network using a federal stimulus grant. In 2014, UC2B partnered with iTV3 to operate the network, but CountryWide Broadband bought iTV3 in early 2016. Now UC2B is looking for a new partner.

On August 22, 2016, UC2B issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to find a partner to operate and expand the existing UC2B fiber network. Submit letters of Intent to Respond to the RFP by Monday, August 29, 2016 to RFP@UC2B.net. The goal is Gigabit-connectivity in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Pass/Fail Requirements and Some Additional Key Criteria

Interested partners must honor the Three Core Principles of UC2B’s network:
1. An all fiber network; and
2. An open access network; and
3. Ubiquitous access, with no cherry picking.

Respondents will specifically be judged by 10 Pass/Fail Requirements and 9 Additional Key Criteria. These include:

An Initial $8.5 million Investment (p. 7 - 8 of the RFP)

$8.2 million will go to CountryWide Broadband (to buy out their interest in UC2B infrastructure, electronics, and customers), and the remaining $300,000 will be split equally among the City of Champaign, the City of Urbana, and UC2B to cover administrative costs. 

A Community Storefront (p. 10)

The new partner must open a storefront for at least forty hours a week. The store must also have friendly and knowledgeable customer service representatives. 

RFP Schedule 

(Note: the schedule is subject to change)

  • August 22, 2016 -- RFP released
  • August 29, 2016 -- Deadline to submit letter of Intent to Respond to RFP
    (send to: RFP@UC2B.net)
  • August 31, 2016 -- Deadline to submit questions to UC2B
  • September 6, 2016 -- Responses to questions due from UC2B
  • September 19, 2016 -- Deadline RFP responses due to UC2B

The full RFP and its appendices are available on the UC2B website.

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."

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!

UC2B At A Crossroads, Partner Selling Assets

In late February, private Internet service provider, Countrywide Broadband (CWB), announced that it and Seaport Capital together would acquire assets belonging to iTV-3, Inc. In addition to fiber networks developed in Peoria, Bartonville, and Bloomington, iTV-3 is deeply involved in bringing connectivity to the Urbana-Champaign community. The company leases fiber on the UC2B network, has expanded the network by deploying its own fiber off the UC2B fiber rings, and promised to expand the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network across the community.

In the agreement with iTV-3, the UC2B nonprofit has a right of first refusal to purchase any local iTV-3 assets deployed if iTV-3 is purchased by another company. In short, UC2B has 60 days from the date of the CWB and iTV-3 purchase agreement to decide if they want to purchase the iTV-3 fiber expansions. If the nonprofit decides not to purchase the fiber, it will continue to own the UC2B rings and CWB will own the expansion fiber.

It was only a few weeks ago that we wrote about the upcoming sale of Bristol's BVU Optinet. It is important for communities to recognize that as these networks are built, they are targets for purchase and consolidation. Fiber networks are a hot commodity and local governments may be tempted to plug short term financial problems with a sale that has implications for decades – long after those elected officials have left office. 

They Chose iTV-3

The open access (FTTH) network, one of the few last-mile projects awarded funding during the first round of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), cost $26 million to deploy. The network offered affordable access to residents - as low as $19.99 per month. At first, UC2B operated the network, but the organization later sought a private partner to manage and provide services. In 2014, UC2B chose iTV-3, Inc. as a partner to offer triple-play and to expand the network.

UC2B chose iTV-3 primarily because it was a local ISP; the Springfield company served other Illinois communities. iTV-3 was a subsidiary of Family Video which owns a number of video stores in the U.S. and Canada. For the past several years, the company has invested in the Internet service provider business, including purchasing smaller providers and deploying new fiber networks. The company appeared solid and had the expertise to manage the network. Under the terms of the UC2B partnership, iTV-3 agreed to lease the UC2B fiber to offer services, manage the network so other providers could offer services via the fiber, and continue to expand with its own fiber investments. 

Since the start of the partnership, iTV-3 has expanded in at least one neighborhood and several others reached the qualifying threshold for pre-subscriptions. Before iTV-3 agreed to schedule fiber construction, Urbana-Champaign residents and businesses in a target neighborhood needed to reach at least a 50 percent subscription rate.

The Community Has Another Choice

In a recent Telecompetitor article, CWB President and CEO Grier Raclin said that the company is looking for more companies like iTV-3 to add to its collection:

“We’re looking for broadband [companies],” said Raclin. The company is looking primarily for companies that have deployed fiber-to-the-home or hybrid-fiber coax, he noted. But he added that “we will consider twisted pair if we have the opportunity to do a triple-play and a growth opportunity.”

“We have an opportunity to add value . . . and grow,” said Raclin.

Right now, UC2B is an asset that belongs to, and serves, the people of Urbana-Champaign. CWB appears to be a company looking to add profitable investments to its portfolio, rather than become invested in the community. The UC2B community needs to consider the long term value of controlling the network and what is at stake if CWB takes the helm.

We encourage the community to carefully consider their position within the terms of the agreement with iTV-3. We hope that the Urbana-Champaign community will consider the long term consequences if they decline to purchase the iTV-3 expansion fiber. The situation in Urbana-Champaign highlights one of the risks of public private partnerships. Once those fiber assets change hands to a company with no local stakes, Urbana-Champaign subscribers have lost some leverage; their future connectivity is in the hands of an outsider. 

Listen to episode #160 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from July, 2015, in which Chris interviewed Brandon Bowersox Johnson from UC2B and Levi Dinkla, Vice President and CEO of iTV-3.

"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

Chicago Alderman Advocates Public Fiber For Municipal Savings

At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.

Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government eliminated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.

“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”

Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.

The city is trying to find ways to generate revenue amidst a major $30 billion employee pension crisis that led Moody’s to downgrade the city’s bond rating to junk status in May.

One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.

Illinois Munis Partner with Local ISP for Gigabit Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode 160

The southern Illinois cities of Urbana and Champaign joined the University of Illinois in seeking and winning a broadband stimulus award to build an open access urban FTTH network. After connecting some of the most underserved neighborhoods, the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) network looked for a partner to expand the network to the entire community.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with UC2B Board Chair Brandon Bowersox Johnson and the private partner iTV-3's VP and Chief Operating Officer Levi Dinkla. The local firm, iTV-3, already had a strong reputation as an Internet Service Provider as well as operating other lines of business as well.

In our conversation, we talk about iTV-3's commitment to customer service, their expansion plan, and how the network remains open access. Read our continuing coverage of UC2B here. See the neighborhood signups 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 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Lessons Learned from Community Outreach in Gilberts, Illinois

Earlier this year, we reported on the Village of Gilberts, Illinois, where voters defeated a measure to approve general obligation bonds for a municipal network project. Our story got the attention of Bill Beith, Assistant Village Administrator from Gilberts who contacted us to talk about the project and provide detail on their efforts to educate the voters prior to the election.

The project would have raised property taxes 1.8 percent or approximately $150 per year on a property with a $250,000 market value. Even though the network would have been a publicly owned asset, Beith believes the idea of any new taxes defeated the measure. As the community considered the project, voters stated repeatedly that Comcast or one of the other incumbents should pay for deployment of infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Village had approached incumbents who had no interest in building in Gilberts. They felt the investment would not pay off in a community that is home to about 6,800 people.

The proposed project was to be deployed along side a private fiber network. When the developer of a new housing development learned that fiber significantly increases the value of real estate, he chose to include it to each new home. He also chose to bring the network to a nearby school along with several public safety and municipal facilities at no charge to the Village. 

The project on which voters denied funding would have extended fiber to the rest of the community. According to Beith, the developer still plans to continue his fiber build in an incremental fashion. In addition to the homes in the new housing development, he will focus on commercial connectivity in the Village of Gilberts.

Even though the measure failed in April, the Village will continue to explore ways to work with the developer. According to Beith, he and other advocates for improving connectivity in Gilberts walked away with some valuable lessons for the future.

Ultimately, timing played an important role. Because referendum rules precluded the Village from advocating a position on the project, Beith felt their ability to share the potential benefits was compromised. If the Village needs to ask a similar question to the voters in the future, they will begin educating the public long before the referendum question is determined.

Beith also believes that the citizen Facebook page could have played a more instrumental role if it had been developed earlier. He found that it became a place for online debate and felt that, if it had been up and running earlier, advocates could have used the forum as a way to address arguments or misinformation early in the process.

The Village created NetworkGilberts.com and Beith believes that branding the idea of the network was a good way to introduce the initiative to the public. They also posted some basic videos to provide basic information on connectivity. If they had offered videos earlier in the process, the Village could have presented a waider range of material. Beith noted that they were also restricted in what links the the Village could provide and could only offer factual resources that did not advocate for or against the project.

According to Beith, the Village held an open house where they provided live demonstrations of 300 Mbps Internet access via fiber, a pair of 4K big screen TVs and eight assorted devices streaming simultaneously. Approximately 50 or 60 people attended the open house but Bill described the atmosphere as skeptical. It is his belief that the people attending the open house were undecided while those that stayed away had already determined how they would vote.

The Village of Gilberts must wait two years until this issue can be presented to the voters again. Beith is hopeful that by that time word will spread that access to fiber is unsurpassed and demand will grow. Many things can happen in two years and, as we have seen in other communities, it often takes several attempts for referendums to pass.

Chicago Aldermen Want to Explore Fiber Potential

Chicago is moving in the direction of using municipal fiber to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. According to the Chicago Sun Times, three Aldermen and the Vice Mayor recently introduced a Resolution calling for hearings on ways to use existing fiber assets for personal and commercial use. Text of Resolution R2015-338 [PDF] is now available online.

The City has flirted with a greater vision for its publicly owned infrastructure in the past, including Wi-Fi and fiber. In February 2014, the community released a Request for Qualifications for Broadband Infrastructure [PDF].

This time the City plans to collect information and educate leadership with hearings on ways to utilize the fiber that grace Chicago's underground freight tunnels. They also want to explore city-owned light poles and government rooftops as potential locations for wireless network equipment. From the article:

“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” [Finance Committee Chairman Edward] Burke said in a press release.

Burke was joined by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis, Economic Capital, Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney, and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino.

R2015-338 lists many of the communities we have researched as examples to follow, including Chattanooga, Wilson, Lafayette, and Scott County in Minnesota. In addition to exclusively municipal projects, the Resolution acknowledges partnerships between public entities and private organizations, regional projects, and statewide efforts. Clearly, Chicago is open to a variety of possibilities.

While creating more options for businesses and residents is a primary motivator, the City Council is also considering the potential for revenue:

“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.

It is true that municipal networks often generate revenue in the long term. It is also true that they share one characteristic with private networks: it can take a significant number of years to reach that stage.

Locals Celebrate iTV-3 and UC2B Expansion in Champaign-Urbana

The expansion in Champaign-Urbana has begun! On May 8th, iTV-3 held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the start of its plan to bring fiber to the homes of neighborhoods that sign up for service. IllinoisHomePage.net reported on the event with the video below.

An April press release announced the celebration that kicked off efforts to meet iTV-3's ultimate goal:

This will enable iTV-3 to expand the network and provide Gigabit service to more than 250,000 homes including 45,000 households and businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. 

The company has promised to expand to neighborhoods where they achieve a 50 percent commitment. 

Earlier this year, the ISP increased speeds for free in order to offer service that meets the minimum speeds as revised by the FCC. The lowest tier available from iTV-3 via the UC2B network is now 30 Mbps. All speeds are symmetrical.

The UC2B partnership with iTV-3 has been heralded by public leaders. UC2B's private sector partner, iTV-3 is an Illinois company with a track record of business decisions that support local communities. Their agreement is structured in such a way that will protect the UC2B nonprofit and subscribers in the future. At the event, a representative from iTV-3 briefly described the company's approach to the communities it serves:

"We own and operate the Family Video stores nationwide as well, and for us, we've always enjoyed being part of the community and this in and of itself is a community wide effort," said Trevor Rice, who is the marketing director for iTV-3. "Without the community's involvement, we're not going to be able to expand."