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New Details on Possible FTTP Network in Holland, MI

In March, we wrote about a prospective municipal fiber network project in the western Michigan city of Holland. Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) began a pilot test in January, offering gigabit speed services to three commercial buildings in the city via a system of dark fiber cable that the city has owned for more than two decades.

Holland’s Board of Public Works (HBPW) has since released a study that details options for a citywide municipally owned Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. Although the study is only a first step toward developing a final business plan for the network, it gives significant insight into the city’s plans for the project.

Prospective Network Footprint and Business Model

In the first option, the city could invest $63.2 million to add nearly 500 miles of fiber lines to the city’s existing fiber infrastructure to create a municipal FTTP network for the entire HBPW service area. The new network would reach all of the homes, businesses, and municipal facilities in Holland and in neighboring communities that fall within the HBPW’s service area.

The second option suggests a $29.8 million investment on a fiber network with a smaller FTTP footprint that would provide gigabit speed fiber connections to all premises within the Holland city limits.

According to the study, the city prefers a “hybrid open access” business model in which Holland would provide retail services while also preserving its current open access model. The study also discusses potential FTTP models the city could consider, including one in which the city serves as the network’s sole ISP as well as several different potential public-private partnership (PPP) models that have been successful in other cities.

The study suggests that the city can finance the larger of the proposed network projects with a combination of bonds and loans. The study assumes a 39.6 percent take rate

Faster Speeds, Better Rates

The fastest connectivity customers in Holland can get from the existing city network is not competitive on speed and price with the services offered by local incumbent providers. The established network serves only commercial customers; the pilot project is the city's experiment in residential and small- and mid-sized business connectivity.

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But with a newly expanded FTTP network, the city would dramatically improve options to residents and businesses. Based on their 39.6 percent take rate, consultants proposed subscription rates for 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access:

  • Residents: $80 per month
  • Small commercial service: $85 per month
  • Medium commercial services: $220 per month

The study notes an additional, one-time $820 charge to connect each premise to the network.

Opportunity for Local Collaboration?

The city of Holland may also have the opportunity to cooperate on a broader network plan with Laketown Township, a neighboring community that recently proposed creating its own municipal fiber network. Laketown Township, part of which falls within HBPW’s service area, will vote in May on a proposed $8.6 million fiber network.

"When we began developing the fiber broadband business plan, we were unaware that Laketown was also pursuing fiber for the township,” a statement from the HBPW said. “We will gladly work and meet with Laketown officials to coordinate our offerings."

Local Fiber = Local Benefits

Whatever the final decision, Holland City Council Member Brian Burch makes a powerful argument highlighting the economic and quality of life benefits for everyone who lives and works within reach of the future network:

"Like drinking water, access to information is the new public health…. Advances in information and communications technology means that education is no longer confined to the classroom and our children can become more competitive in the global economy. Like strong transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and water channels, public infrastructure allows commerce to grow and for private business to thrive…. The “backbone” of this gigabit network is currently wired, our next step is to bring this capability into homes and small businesses. By doing so, Holland can be at the forefront of the new economy and define our region with more educated residents and an even faster-growing economy."

Holland, Michigan Pilot Project Could Lead to More

pilot project in the City of Holland, Michigan is now delivering gigabit speed Internet service via a dark fiber network built by the city more than two decades ago; three commercial buildings are connected. The project, led by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), is the first phase in an effort to develop a municipally owned and operated fiber network.

Holland is home to about 33,500 people and situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. The community is known for its roots in Dutch culture and is a popular summer tourist destination. Windmills and tulips dot the landscape.

Daniel Morrison, the president of a software company in Holland and a member of a local public interest group called Holland Fiber, recognizes that businesses need fast, affordable, reliable connectivity:

“Our whole business is online,” he told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “We’re working with clients all over the world and we want to be able to work as quickly as possible.”

Morrison’s company is a pilot tester. After the testing program began in January, Morrison Tweeted out a screen grab showing his Internet speeds:

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Pretty darn fast.

Toward a Municipal Network?

Pilot testing is set to last for three months to allow Holland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) to test out network technologies and solicit feedback from testers. All of the pilot testers are getting free fiber Internet service during the testing period.

Holland's BPW plans to apply their findings from the test toward a business plan for a municipal network for the entire service area. They will also use the business plan to support an application to the State of Michigan to become an authorized Internet Service Provider. BPW officials expect state regulators to respond to their application by the fall of 2016.

History of Holland’s Fiber Network

Holland first installed a 17 mile, 48-count fiber optic ring in 1992. It successfully facilitated a “smarter” power grid for the city, improving the reliability of various electrical facilities and equipment. In 2003, the city extended the fiber network to most of the school facilities in the local school districts.

Since the mid-1990s, the BPW has also provided limited wholesale Internet services to a small number of businesses that need high capacity data services. After expansion and extension of the network over the years, Holland now has 76 backbone miles of fiber, more than 150 total route miles, and fiber counts of up to 288 strands.

Envisioning a Better Future

Holland was one of the many cities across the country that tried unsuccessfully to lure Google Fiber to their town in 2010. After that disappointment, BPW released a “Broadband Strategic Plan” in 2011 in which they laid out their objectives for providing improved Internet service in Holland. That plan resulted in a recommendation to invest $58 million in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The Holland City Council never voted to adopt the plan.

Michigan has restrictions, but those state barriers apply when a community decides to invest in municipal Internet network infrastructure as was the case in Sebewaing. In those cases, a community can only build the network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. Holland already has fiber in place.

The pilot project is an important step in developing a municipal fiber network in Holland. With the existing infrastructure already in place, the community can assert local authority over the development of a 21st century utility that will benefit the businesses, government services, and residents in this community for years to come.

Muni Fiber Tennessee Twofer: Columbia and Pulaski - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 189

We cover a lot of Tennessee ground in this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast - episode 189 - from a cable network to muni Fiber-to-the-Home; Columbia to Pulaski. Wes Kelley, the Executive Director of the Columbia Power and Water Systems is our guest to talk about Columbia's cable and Pulaski's fiber.

He cut his teeth working with a Michigan community's public utility that ultimately decided not to get involved in telecommunications. But he moved on to build out a citywide fiber network in Pulaski before ultimately moving to Columbia, which was the last community in the United States to build a cable system (since then it has been all fiber).

He shares some of his lessons along the way, tips for customer service, and Columbia's plans for the future with their cable system. He also has some choice words for the big content owners that make the cable television business all but impossible for any reasonably sized cable operation.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 30 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”

Small City Fights Comcast Over Institutional Network

Reports have recently surfaced from The Detroit News and Patch.com that a town in Michigan is now fighting Comcast over who owns their network.

The Backstory

Fifteen years ago, West Bloomfield, Michigan, population about 65,000, wanted an Institutional Network (I-Net) to connect all the important services, like emergency response, police, fire, and water, with a dedicated high-speed network. The town entered into a franchise agreement in order to share the construction costs with the incumbent cable company, which at the time was MediaOne. According to the township, MediaOne offered to contribute $400,000 to the cost of construction as part of that agreement.

The agreement was transferred to Comcast in 2000; Comcast acquired MediaOne in 2002. MediaOne and successor Comcast have provided "free high-speed bandwidth transport as well as interconnectivity" during the life of the network claims Comcast in a letter submitted to the court. The cable giant also describes the practice as a "benefit not provided by Comcast's competitors" and wants it to stop. The franchise agreement expired on October 1 but was renewed until 2025.

To The Courts

Comcast and the town are now fighting over ownership of the infrastructure. With Comcast demanding new fees, the town is bringing a lawsuit. Comcast, however, maintains that it owns the I-Net that the town uses for all its important communications. The Detroit News reports that the township is coming out swinging:

The township said it is illegal to use public funds for private commercial purposes and insists there was never any reference to a cable company ever retaining ownership of the I-Net and said it has paid all other costs including upgrades and maintenance of the system which is “imperative to public safety operations of the township and will impact the township’s budget which is currently being prepared for 2016.”

...

The township not only seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against Comcast, it wants the company’s act declared a “wrongful conversion of township property” and to be awarded three times the actual damages plus costs and attorney fees.

In the past, these agreements made sense to small towns that needed economical internal communications. All across the U.S., towns signed onto franchise agreements with large providers that offered to build I-Nets and supply connectivity.

As original franchise agreements expire, ownership issues and rate changes are popping up. After years of dependency on big corporate providers in an environment where there is little or no competition, communities like West Bloomfield often find themselves at the mercy of companies like Comcast.

What Can Cities Do? Take Control

There’s another way though. Many towns have built their own I-Nets - often with better connectivity and more savings than franchise agreements offer. The infrastructure can be expanded for other public policy programs too, like economic development or residential Internet access. The “Institutional Networks” page is full of stories about communities that have built their own I-Nets. Rather than trusting big corporate providers, towns control their own infrastructure and are better able to predict connectivity costs.

Franchise agreements are expiring across the country. Big corporate providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable use this strategy to squeeze more dollars from institutional customers. Martin County, Florida, overcame a similar situation when Time Warner Cable tried to extract exorbitant fees as their franchise agreement expired. Rather than pay an increased rate of more than 800 percent, they chose to invest in a publicly owned fiber I-Net. The community is now able to control their costs with fast, affordable, reliable infrastructure that the community can expand. Read more about Martin County in our 2012 Report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network.

Other towns can expect to find themselves in the same situation as West Bloomfield, Michigan. Raising rates and demanding new fees, large providers put profit before the best interests of the community. With these franchise agreements expiring, there’s a chance for cities and towns to take back local control by building their own networks.

The time to act is now. To learn more about what to do at the local level, check out our Community Connectivity Toolkit.

New Michigan Bar Journal Article: "The Internet and Municipal Broadband Systems"

A recent Michigan Bar Journal article by attorney Michael J. Watza, The Internet and Municipal Broadband Systems, provides a quick look at the FCC's Open Internet Order [PDF], the recent ruling on state barriers to municipal networks, and how the two may intertwine in Michigan. Watza's three-pager is a great resource for community groups, legislators, and advocates who want to share necessary information without overwhelming the reader.

In addition to providing summaries of each order, Watza offers hope for places that lack the Internet access they need to prosper. He acknowledges Michigan's first gigabit municipal network in Sebewaing and mentions the possibility of public private partnerships. Having worked with Michigan municipalities on telecommunications issues, he knows that other communities in the Great Lakes State also have their eyes on the future:

However, many communities interested in building their own broadband systems have been stymied by state laws written by and for the influential provider industry that either barred such systems or imposed onerous conditions on them. Michigan is one of a couple dozen states with these laws. By striking down such laws, the FCC has authorized and encouraged a significant economic tool for these communities. And perhaps most importantly, by freeing these communities to build on their own or partner with high-speed, low-cost, Internet-friendly private partners like Google (which has been actively pursuing such systems when incumbent monopoly providers have not), it is clear that the FCC is aggressively supporting rate control by the best alternative option in a free market: competition!

Read the entire article [PDF] online and share it with your Michigan friends.

Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave is another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Sebewaing Bringing Better Connectivity to Residents, Businesses Via Fiber in Michigan

If you live in Sebewaing, you can now purchase FTTH connectivity from Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) via their municipal network. Earlier this week, we discussed the network with Sebewaing Light and Water Superindendent Melanie McCoy.

The first village in Michigan to offer gigabit service issued its RFP in summer 2013. Like many other small communities, the 1,700 inhabitants in Sebewaing were limited to dial-up. T1 service (1.5 Mbps)  was available to businesses but lines cost from $1,000 - $1,500.

Commercial connectivity via the new infrastructure now begins at $75 for symmetrical 50 Mbps service. SLW also offers symmetrical 100 Mbps for $130 and advertises customized packages if those options are not adequate. SLW will also waive the $125 installation fee if a business signs up before the end of the year.

Residents also receive free standard installation if they sign up before the end of 2014. They can pay as little as $35 per month for symmetrical 30 Mbps service, $55 per month for 50 Mbps symmetrical, or $105 per month for 100 Mbps symmetrical service. 1 Gbps/100 Mbps service costs $160 per month.

SLW has already signed up a commercial gig customer. The Bay Shore Methodist Camp & Family Ministries holds events that often cater to hundreds of children and adults. They need a high capacity connection for Wi-Fi to serve a large number of devices.

Sebewaing's original plan was to build an open access network but after careful consideration and legal analysis, it decided to provide retail services. SLW purchases bandwidth only from Air Advantage, a wireless provider specializing in the "thumb" of Michigan. The utility also offers voice services via the network.

According to a September Tuscola County Advertiser article, customers were signing up for service as SLW was finishing deployment. We checked in with Melanie McCoy, SLW Superintendent, who told us 328 people have added their names to a sign-up list. At this writing, they have connected 130 premises, mostly residents. SLW has not invested in marketing but when installers are out, residents see them and immediately call the utility to request service.

According to McCoy, unanticipated high demand has been one of SLW's biggest challenges. They underestimated the amount of time it would take to perform each installation and a few customers have grown impatient. Nevertheless, they have received glowing reviews from customers who are connected.

Speed is certainly an important factor in attracting customers so quickly, but McCoy told the Advertiser that the people of the community also value affordability and accountability:

McCoy said she’s pleased that Sebewaing residents and businesses will have access to gigabit speed, and they’ll have better prices and better service because of the “local” factor. Customers won’t have to deal with a large urban conglomerate for their service. 

Michigan's First Gigabit Village - Community Broadband Bits Episode 126

The small village of Sebewaing has become the first gigabit village in the state of Michigan. Superintendent of Sebewaing Light and Water utility Melanie McCoy joins us to discuss the project on episode 126 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

With approximately 1,800 people, Sebewaing has cracked the code for a small local government to deliver gigabit services to the community. In the show, we discuss previous telecommunications investments by the village and how they financed the gigabit fiber deployment.

We also discuss how Michigan law, designed to discourage municipal networks, delayed the project and increased the costs as well as the annoyance to many residents who long ago became impatient with how long it took to begin turning on the Internet service.

Read our full coverage of Sebewaing here.

Read the transcript from our conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 14 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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.
Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

Network Progressing in "Sugartown" Michigan

Last summer we reported on Sebewaing, the community of 1,700 in the tip of the "thumb" in Michigan. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) was exploring the possibilities of deploying its own FTTH network. Like other small communities, Sebewaing could not get the service it needed from large corporate providers. We recently caught up with SLW's Superintendent, Melanie McCoy, to get an update.

The community released its RFP [PDF] and received responses from two bidders. McCoy tells us that in Michigan, such a low response rate allows the municipality to deploy its own network, so SLW decided to proceed.

The construction bid for the fiber backbone went to Earthcom, located in Lansing. Air Advantage successfully bid to supply bandwidth and the headend. Calix will provide the customer premise equipment that will offer data and voice services.

Sebewaing's network is 90% aerial and the final estimate is $1-2 million. The network will provide 1 gig capacity with the potential to expand to 10 gigs. Because the utility has its own poles and in-house expertise to handle labor, SLW is able to perform make-ready work themselves, lowering the final cost of the deployment. SLW will use an interdepartmental loan from its electric, water, and wireless utilities to fund the investment. According to McCoy, the RFP responses were both about $1 million higher than the final estimate.

In 2003, SLW began providing wireless Internet access to residents in Sebewaing so staff has experience as a broadband utility. They also installed a small fiber loop in the downtown area to serve businesses and municipal facilities. The old fiber loop will be retired because it has fewer strands and has been maxed out for some time.

The new fiber will replace connections between fifteen public facilities, including wells, public safety, and administration buildings. Each facility currently pays only $15-25 per month to be connected, saving thousands in yearly fees for leased lines from incumbents. Rates will not change, even though the new network will offer higher capacity.

Bandwidth is currently purchased as part of a consortium that includes the school district. The district purchases bandwidth through a link to the Merit Network, the Michigan statewide fiber network that reaches educational and research facilities.

When SLW finishes the installation, it will work primarily with Air Advantage, a wireless and fiber provider specializing in connecting rural customers in the area. SLW will maintain the connection to the Merit Network for redundancy.

Pricing for connections is still being determined, but SLW anticipates more speed for less. According to McCoy, SLW sees this venture as another way to serve the public. The network will provide an essential service and will also boost economic development. Sebewaing, nicknamed "Sugartown," has a thriving sugar beet industry but when the auto industry took a downturn, the local economy suffered. To date, no other industry has stepped in to fill the gap.

Local establishments are ready to make a switch. Businesses and residents, frustrated with poor service from incumbents AT&T and Comcast, are already asking to be connected. McCoy also notes that the network is expected to offer telecommuting opportunities for a number of people. For example, an astronomer from the University of Michigan, located about 2 hours south, anticipates a possible move to the area. The rural night sky is ideal for his work but he needs a high capacity connection to share data with colleagues.

The Huron Daily Tribune spoke with McCoy in January, who hinted at more developments in Michigan:

Because of the many benefits involved in a FTTH project, other municipalities around the Thumb and in other areas are watching what Sebewaing is doing, McCoy said. The town could very well become the model for FTTH systems for rural areas all over the state, and beyond.