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Muni In Muscatine: Upgrades, Speeds Up, Outperforms

Cedar Falls may be the Iowa city famous for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but that won’t stop Muscatine. This small city of approximately 29,000 people is about to upgrade its aging network. For a little over a year, the municipal utility, Muscatine Power and Water (MP&W), has planned for the move to FTTH with funding from an interdepartmental loan. Now, FTTH is coming to Muscatine's MachLink Internet access service.

MP&W expects to break ground this year on this $8.7 million FTTH project and to finish building the network in 2017. Fiber will offer speeds much faster than those available on the existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network. In anticipation, MP&W is increasing speeds for subcribers without raising rates.

More than a Year in the Making

The local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, has closely followed the story. In late November 2014, MP&W announced the planned FTTH upgrade. MP&W is taking a slow and steady approach and planning to complete the upgrade in 2017. The latest Muscatine Journal article from this March emphasized how the large infrastructure project has many "interlocking" pieces that must fit together to make the project successful.

As we reported when MP&W announced the upgrade in 2014, a FTTH network will achieve immediate goals and help achieve a number of benefits. MP&W wants to improve residential services, reduce maintenance costs, and increase network reliability. Upgrading to FTTH will also contribute to long-term goals, such as encouraging economic development. Fiber is a future-proof technology, adapting to the increasing need for bandwidth from households, businesses, and institutions. MachLink will offer speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second.

Outperforming Expectations

In the spirit of community, MP&W is increasing speeds without raising rates. MP&W announced that current customers will get twice the speed for no additional charge. Current MachLink subscribers with the fastest tier receive 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download which will double, but Gigabit speeds will dwarf even that. Upload speeds have yet to be determined.

It’s a good move as the TV and Internet services in Muscatine are continuing to grow in popularity. The communications division has outperformed already high expectations according to the Muscatine Journal this January:

“A profit of $1.25 million was budgeted for the Communications Utility for 2015, but actual profit was $1.79 million. For December, actual profit of $214,638 outperformed the budgeted $120,136.”

Without this public network, those dollars could have all gone to absentee-owned providers - who wouldn’t be investing money to improve the network. Also, it’s important to note that publicly owned networks do not actually make a “profit” to be distributed among shareholders, but rather extra revenue is reinvested in other community projects, used to improve the network, to pay down debt, or put in a rainy day fund. Publicly owned network "shareholders" are people who live and work in the community served by the network.

The FTTH network will make current services even better. As Beecher Sykes, MP&W manager of telecommunications, told the Muscatine Journal in March,

“(Fiber is) an extreme benefit not only to customers but the community as a whole.” 

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."

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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."

Muscatine, Iowa, Upgrading to FTTH

Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) announced in late November that it will upgrade its municipal hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) communications network to an FTTH network. The upgrade will allow Muscatine to offer gigabit speeds. Construction is set to begin in 2016; the FTTH network is scheduled to go live in 2017.

According to the press release, the community hopes to capitalize on the new technology for economic development opportunities, better residential services, and replace an aging system with future proof infrastructure. From the press release [PDF]:

Consideration was also given to two other plans that would have either maintained or incrementally improved the existing HFC system. As stewards of the public trust, the Board of Trustees felt the other options were costly short-term fixes and that FTTH was clearly the superior option.

“Tonight’s decision assures that Muscatine Power and Water will continue to be a leader in telecommunications,” said LoBianco, “the new system will be able meet the bandwidth needs of the community for years to come while reducing maintenance and improving reliability. It ensures that the communications capabilities in Muscatine are as good as in any large city which enjoys the benefits of FTTH technology.”

Muscatine sits in the far southeast corner of the state and is home to approximately 29,000 people. The community established a municipal water utility in 1900, an electric utility in 1922, and its communications utility in 1997. According to the press release, the community was unhappy with the previous incumbent and an overwhelming majority of local voters elected to establish what is now called MachLink. The network offers video and Internet access.

A Muscatine Journal article reporting on a recent meeting of the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees notes that the project will be funded with an interdepartmental loan, one of the three most common funding mechanisms. (For more on funding municipal networks, check out our fact sheet [PDF].)

The article also reported that the communications utility posted a $64,000 profit in October which was higher than expected. In fact,  the entire year has been better than expected, even though revenues were down: 

The communications utility posted profit of $64,134 in October, compared to the budgeted profit of $43,928. A 3.7 percent decrease in revenue was driven by a lower number of cable television subscribers, but expenses were lower due to lower programming fees. A loss of $26,723 was budgeted for the year through October. Instead, profit of $470,960 was posted.

Spencer Municipal Utilities Expands Upgrade to Fiber in Iowa

Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) in Iowa is expanding an upgrade project to bring fiber to approximately 2,000 additional premises. A little over a year ago, we reported on the switch from coax cable to fiber for 700 municipal network customers with no rate increase. According to the Spencer Daily Reporter, the original project is almost completed; the expanded upgrade will cost approximately $4.5 million.

Amanda Gloyd, marketing and community relations manager, told the Daily Reporter:

Since SMU first began offering Internet service to customers the amount used by customers has increased and we expect to see that continue. For example, the average peak usage from customers in the fall of 2010 was 125MB and today it averages around 800MB with maximums over 1,200 MB. The project to convert the whole town of Spencer will take several years and we continue to develop plans for future projects.

In April, the SMU Board of trustees approved a modest rate increase for video and Internet access to help defray increased costs for video content and increased demand on the system. The last time rates went up for video service was early 2013; residential Internet access rates have remained the same since November 2011.

New rates went into effect on June 1. Internet access rates range from $20 per month for 1 Mbps/256 Kbps to $225 per month for 100 Mbps/10 Mbps. Basic level video service begins at $14 per month; "Basic Plus" is $50.75 per month. Digital service and a range of channel choices are available as add-ons.

SMU also provides voice and partners with T-Mobile to provide wireless phone service in the community. The network began serving customers in 2000.

Spencer, population 11,300, is located in the northwest section of the state. In the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #13, Chris spoke with Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU). Dean shared a story about Hansen's Clothing, a local upscale clothier in Spencer. Thanks to the presence of the SMU network, Hansen's was able to expand its sales to the online marketplace. Hansen's was struggling until it obtained the ability to reach clientele in New York and Los Angeles. The fresh business allowed Hansen's to flourish.

Meet Russellville, Kentucky's Broadband Speed Leader - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #82

The municipal electric utility in Russellville has launched Kentucky's first citywide gigabit service on its FTTH network. Russellville Electric Plant Board General Manager Robert White joins us to share their motivations for building a fiber network.

The utility had originally offered some telecommunications services over a wireless system but recognized the need for a more robust fiber system, in part because of the lack of investment in modern telecommunications by incumbent cable and telephone providers.

Now Russellville has much better options for residents, local businesses, and schools. We expanded on this interview with a mini case study of their network.

Read the transcript of 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 15 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Iowa Municipal Utilities on Gigabit Nation

We were glad to hear our friend, Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities join Craig Settles on his Gigabit Nation Internet Radio show. Listen below to learn more about what local utilities are doing to help their communities thrive in the digital age.

Spanish Fork Discusses Stunning Success - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #60

The Spanish Fork Community Fiber Network (SFCN) is an incredibly successful HFC cable network in Utah. It delivers television, telephone, and Internet access at incredibly low rates to most of the community despite competition from Comcast. Located south of Provo, Spanish Fork has a population of 35,000.

Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director John Bowcut joins us for episode 60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss why they built the network in 2000. Funded with 15 year bonds, the network mortgage is nearly retired.

In the meantime, the network generates an extra million in revenue for the local government and keeps over $2 million in the community each year with its low rates that force competitors to keep rates lower than they otherwise would.

Read the transcript of this show 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 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Community Network Services (CNS) Brings STEM Education and More to Rural Southwest Georgia

“With agriculture being the number one industry in the state, we are looking to inspire students to learn globally and live and produce locally. Agriculture and STEM education are a natural fit. With GPS-guided equipment and variable-rate irrigation and fertilizer applicators to better manage natural resources, education is key." These are the words of Beau Sherman, Regional Distant Learning and Video Coordinator for Education serving schools connected by Community Network Services (CNS) in Georgia.

CNS was formed in 1997 when several towns in rural southwest Georgia got together to form a public telecom utility. They started by connecting local schools and libraries with a fiber broadband network. While CNS has since grown into a full-service telecommunications provider - offering phone, video and internet access to business and residential customers - its impact on local education is a shining example of how community broadband networks can improve local education. CNS now serves 65 schools across 3,278 rural square miles including the cities of Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Pelham and Thomasville.

To help realize the network’s full educational potential, the school districts served by CNS teamed up to hire Beau Sherman. Mr. Sherman had long been a strong advocate for pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in rural southwest Georgia. So he was the perfect fit for the role of helping the schools harness their new state-of-the-art broadband network.

One way Mr. Sherman is leveraging CNS’s high-speed fiber network is bringing live interactive science demonstrations into classrooms via Georgia Tech’s Direct 2 Discovery (D2D) program. With CNS and D2D, students in rural southwest Georgia enjoy live interactions with research scientists demonstrating principles of science in fields including astronomy, high-energy physics and nanotechnology. Students see in HD exactly what the scientists see and can ask questions as if they were all in the same room. Having worked with schools lacking high-speed fiber connectivity, Sherman attests that these two-way HD interactions would not be possible for his students without CNS’s fiber network.

Another way CNS is enabling new educational opportunities is by offering telepresence capabilities to a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program set to launch at Mitchell County High School in Camilla, Georgia. Telepresence will allow students to complete their practicum requirements with supervising instructors who cannot physically be in Camilla. Due to low numbers of medical professionals in rural areas, it is difficult to provide consistent supervision for medical training programs. But thanks to CNS’s high-speed fiber network, medical supervisors can be much more efficient with their time - treating patients in one town while training nursing students in another, without hours of driving in between.

Thanks to CNS and Beau Sherman, students in some of Georgia’s most rural stretches are enjoying high-tech educational opportunities available only through advanced broadband networks. And as we see time and time again, municipalities are very well suited to solve these problems locally with their own investments at a far lower cost than they would pay to lease inferior services.

Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto

I was troubled to see Broadband Communities publish an odd and misleading story about Palo Alto in the May-June issue [pdf]. Authored by Stephen Blum of Tellus Venture Associates, a consultant that has been hired by Palo Alto in the past, it showed a remarkable level of ignorance about community owned fiber networks and broadband more generally.

The title alone, "Can FTTP Work in Palo Alto?" is just odd. Why exactly would FTTP not work in Palo Alto? It works in hundreds of other cities and towns, most of whom are less well positioned than Palo Alto for such a venture. A more honest title would have been "Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto." Blum made a very good case for that narrow argument but fails to lay out any convincing evidence that a variety of other models are doomed.

Parts of the article can only be called cable and DSL boosterism - such as repeating the talking point that AT&T's U-Verse and Comcast already offer "high levels of service at competitive rates." Competitive to what? Neither can deliver the speeds offered by modern fiber networks and are only "competitive" if one ignores the much slower upstream speeds, higher prices, lesser reliability, problems of oversubscription, and poor customer service one gets from those providers.

Reminds me of "Slick Sam" from Lafayette and the "functional equivalence" between DSL and FTTH.

Blum apparently knows better - that Palo Alto residents are "happy" with the existing services because they have not spontaneously marched down El Camino Real demanding faster speeds at lower prices. This is the wrong measure - reminiscent of the now oft-quoted Henry Ford line that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have said "faster horses."

The number of specific errors in this piece are many, and have been well documented by those familiar with the history of Palo Alto's studies. I want to focus on just a few. Let's start here:

Overall, 79 percent of households would have to pay $3,000 apiece to fully fund FTTP construction costs.

YIKES! Cue the foreboding music! Palo Alto has something like 25,000 households. If 20,000 of them paid $3,000 then the City would have $60 million in addition to its present $14 million dark fiber reserve - a staggering $74 million of theoretical money that has nothing to do with anything. I know of no network that has been built in this manner.

This is an absurd measure for whether a network is feasible. Networks are not financed in this way, partially because, as the author adroitly notes, it doesn't appear likely to work. Community owned networks are financed using a few common methods, most often revenue bonds issued by the utility. Palo Alto's past studies of this approach reflected a desire to avoid that path and the results of those studies in no way determine whether a city owned FTTH network is feasible in 2013 given the present assets and environment.

The user-financed model remains a peculiarity and quite possibly will have a role to play in the future (though almost certainly not to finance the entirety of a system). Palo Alto would be crazy to hinge its decision of whether to invest solely on the feasibility of each home owner paying its full connection cost up front.

Palo Alto Logo

In examining the likelihood of success for Palo Alto, it makes sense to consider similar communities that have made the investment:

Although there were some apparent FTTP successes (for example Bristol, Va., and Cedar Falls, Iowa), cities that had more in common with Palo Alto, such as Alameda and Provo, Utah, were failing.

There is nothing "apparently" successful about Cedar Falls or Bristol. They are unambiguously stunning successes, with take rates north of 70 percent and have led to thousands of jobs. And both can deliver a gigabit anywhere in town at a moments notice at rates a fraction of what major carriers charge. But he believes Alameda (with an older HFC cable system) and Provo (having to deal with strict state laws not present in California) are more relevant comparisons. There are some 140 other citywide networks that might be more relevant, but Blum ignores them.


He ultimately concludes that Google's experience in Provo will somehow inform local government decisions around network investments. This is some of the worst advice I have read. First of all, Google's costs are different than any other firm, let alone a local government because it already runs one of the largest fiber networks on the planet (possibly the largest). The most brilliant engineers on the planet work for Google. It doesn't publish its costs and is a private sector firm with far different motivations and incentives than a local government.

In short, there might not be a worse comparison than Google for a local government evaluating its own plan for meeting long term telecommunications needs.

All of this being said, Palo Alto could rationally choose not to invest in a FTTH network. It would have to compete against Comcast and AT&T, who engage in predatory tactics while federal regulators ignore potential Sherman Anti-Trust violations.

Given the many wonderful aspects of the community, particularly for people who don't like winter, maybe DSL and Comcast cable will be good enough for the heart of Silicon Valley. That is their choice, not mine (my wife and I love Minnesota winter). I just hate to see such an imbalanced and inaccurate case made suggesting it could not work.