As states are considering whether and how to use federal CARES Act funding to improve Internet access, Idaho is poised to enact counter-productive limits on who can use that money by excluding community-owned solutions.
Though many states have been under pressure from big monopoly providers to only fund for-profit business models with broadband subsidies, those voices seem largely absent in this Idaho fight. Instead, it is some local monopoly providers that are threatened by a wave of new community networks that break the old monopoly approach to broadband networks.
Shock and Aww, Come on
As Idaho began considering how to spend its CARES Act funding, it took comments from a variety of stakeholders on how to achieve the state’s broadband goals. That process suggested an inclusive, open-ended approach that could help fund a variety of efforts that would improve resilience in a variety of ways — not just new connections to homes.But when the Department of Commerce stepped up to operationalize those goals into a matching grant program, something came off the rails. The state is taking comments this week from Idahoans on an approach it unveiled Tuesday evening. View the draft grant application and rules.
This draft grant application goes through contortions to give the CARES Act money to private companies. The only entities that can apply are governments, including sovereign tribes, local governments, or Idaho state agencies. But they are purely a pass-through — the money must go to a private company per rule IV of eligible projects: "Include only new broadband service, installed, owned, and operated by for-profit companies and not the applicant."
Requiring the networks to be built and operated by for-profit entities runs counter to the suggestions of many stakeholders who discussed how this money should be spent. Non-profit business models run by cooperatives have been essential to expanding the highest-quality Internet access in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana, as we have demonstrated in...Read more
As state lawmakers debate in committee rooms and Capitol chambers around the country, various broadband and Internet network infrastructure bills are appearing on agendas. Some are good news for local communities interested in developing publicly owned networks while other preemption bills make projects more difficult to plan, fund, and execute. We've gathered together some notable bills from several states that merit watching - good, bad, and possibly both.
For years, local communities were not allowed to bond to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in New Hampshire. Last year, the state adopted SB 170, which opened the door a crack so that municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in "unserved" areas. This year, the New Hampshire General Court has the opportunity to push open the door a bit wider with SB 459.
SB 459 allows local communities to potentially define "unserved" areas themselves by putting more responsibility on Internet access providers. Municipalities must currently engage in a request for information process in which they must reach out to all Internet service providers operating in the community. SB 459, if adopted, would allow a community to consider areas "unserved" if a provider does not respond to such a request to clarify which premises are unserved. With the "unserved" designation, municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure to serve those premises.
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers meet all year, Rep. Pam Snyder introduced HB 2055 in late in 2019. The bill allows local governments to provide telecommunications services, but limits them to unserved areas. If passed, the bill amends the Municipalities Authorities Act and,...Read more
The open access network in Ammon, Idaho, has been celebrated as visionary and viewed as a potential model for other communities seeking competitive local Internet access markets. A bill in the state legislature, however, aims to restrict local communities' ability to reproduce the Ammon Model, or any other publicly owned network, by imposing new restrictions on local efforts.
Removing a Local Funding Option
H 490, introduced by Rep. Ron Mendive from Coeur d'Alene, states specifically that local governments have the authority to take the necessary steps to develop Internet networks and to offer services to the general public. Provisions in the bill that dictate how projects are financed, operated, and managed, however, transform the bill into a "muni killer" says Bruce Patterson, Ammon's technology director.
In a recent Idaho Business Review article (subscription required), Patterson described the language of H 490:
“On its face, it claims to authorize cities to have the authority to finance, build, and operate a communications network and offer a communications service, but each of the restrictions that follow make it impossible for a city to actually do those things. It is like telling your child: ‘Sure, you can play outside, just don’t leave the house.'”
Large, national Internet service providers have millions of dollars of capital to invest in new infrastructure wherever they see a business case to do so. The situation is different for local governments interested in developing fiber optic infrastructure when national companies concentrate investment elsewhere. Places like Ammon have had to think creatively to fund necessary projects. By using local improvement...Read more
Idaho Falls has had publicly owned fiber within the community for years, but until recently, limited its use to dark fiber leases and public power purposes. Now, the community is working with UTOPIA Fiber to expand the network in order to serve all premises with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).
This week, General Manager of Idaho Falls Power and Fiber Bear Prairie and Chief Marketing Officer of UTOPIA Fiber Kim McKinley join Christopher to discuss the partnership. The project began with a pilot project but interest from the Idaho Falls community has proven that many people in the community want in on Internet connectivity from their municipal utility.
Our guests talk about the long process that led to their decision to work together and how they gauged interest from the Idaho Falls community. For both the city and for UTOPIA Fiber, this project is a new venture. Bear talks about some of the cost saving construction techniques the utility used, how they determined they wanted a partnership model, and the benefits the fiber network has garnered. Kim explains how, as an organization that aims to increase success for open access networks, UTOPIA Fiber was unsure what the future held in working with a community in Idaho, when the communities they serve had all been in Utah. For both partners, the project has opened doors.
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This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or ...Read more
Idaho Falls completed a publicly owned and operated a dark fiber network in 2010. Recently, city leaders unanimously decided to use the asset to offer citywide Internet access to the community. The vote followed a successful pilot project, commenced in March and completed this past September, which connected around 1,200 homes.
Since that time, Idaho Falls Fiber officials have been gathering data and evaluating the costs and feasibility of expanding the high-speed fiber network through the rest of the Idaho Falls community.
“This kind of a public-private partnership is exciting. It allows the city to focus on infrastructure—something we excel at,” said Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper. “And, it allows local Internet providers to offer their internet services to residents where they previously could not get this type of infrastructure to deliver a reliable high speed Internet product. It captures the best of both worlds.”
Idaho Falls worked with UTOPIA Fiber on the pilot project, which included four local Internet access providers offering services via the Idaho Falls publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure. The open access network will continue to expand over the next four years within the Idaho Falls Power service area. UTOPIA Fiber will continue to work with the city to expand the network.
“Designing a system like this is a complicated operational and engineering function,” said [General Manager Bear] Prairie. “That’s why the Council approved the agreement for us to partner with UTOPIA Fiber, a not-for profit entity like Idaho Falls Fiber that has the experience in operating successful networks similar to our design. We are excited to have successfully demonstrated that utilizing our existing power utility infrastructure to install fiber lines coupled with UTOPIA’s software that opens the network to local Internet providers to use has proven to be an economic success for our city.”
Residents and businesses and sign up and express interest...Read more
Ammon, Idaho, got our attention years ago but as benefits from the city’s publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure continue to grow, others are taking notice. Most recently, contributing editor at Fast Company, Jay Woodruff wrote about the community’s investment in Fast Company's “The New Capitalism” series.
Woodruff notes that Ammon, with only about 16,500 people, has surpassed large cities in quality of connectivity and choice of Internet access providers. Woodruff quotes Bruce Patterson, Technology Director in Ammon: “If you were to ask me what the key component of Ammon is, I would say it’s a broadband infrastructure as a utility. We’ve just found a way to make it a true public infrastructure, like a road.”
Woodruff describes how the infrastructure is being integrated into the community’s larger development:
Residents of Ammon can choose to opt in to the network, which the city began building in 2011. Patterson expects that by the end of 2019, 900 of the town’s 4,500 residences will have joined the network. The city is growing, adding new residential addresses at a rate of about one per day, and Patterson says that every single developer is choosing to include the fiber infrastructure in new construction.
When asked what makes Ammon’s network better than other options available in communities such as New York and San Francisco, Patterson offered four factors:
PUBLIC UTILITY: The city of Ammon manages the network the same way it handles water services or road maintenance. “If we could simply come to a point as a nation where we would say internet infrastructure is essential and we’re going to make sure that everybody has access to it,” Patterson says, “that would be a huge step forward.”
CHOICE: … There are eight local ISPs, and users can switch among them instantly without requiring a “truck roll” (a visit from the ISP to adapt hardware at the customer’s location), because Ammon uses software to “virtualize...
This week, Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco interviews Christopher about some of the many events that we’ve been following lately.
Jess and Christopher start off the show with a healthy dose of outrage as they comment on an advert from Verizon that takes the 5G hype just a little too far. Next they discuss a recent report from several authors, including Sascha Meinrath at Pennsylvania State University. We helped develop the report, which used data from Measurement Lab (M-Lab) based on real world Internet access speeds as compared to self-reported data from ISPs.
During the conversation, Jess and Christopher also talk about the recent media reports on super-affordable Internet access in Ammon, Idaho, where the city’s software defined network is creating choices for residents and businesses. They talk about Ammon’s infrastructure and other possibilities for open access, along with pros and cons. Lastly, the interview turns toward a hotly debated policy proposal that would cap the amount of funding allocated to the Universal Service Fund. Christopher explains what the funds are used for and what concerns need to be addressed with the proposal.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
This show is 35 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
Read the transcript for this episode.Read more
Ammon, Idaho’s open access software defined network has earned accolades from industry experts and been hailed as a model approach for other communities. It has been praised for serving the community, providing reliability, and offering affordable options. Amid news of expansion, the positive effects of competition via the publicly owned network have recently flashed across news and social media. People who don’t live in the Idaho city are shocked to learn how affordable high-quality Internet access can be.
Growing a Good Thing
In March, City of Ammon Fiber Optics began to deploy in the city’s Bridgewater neighborhood, where they expected to connect around 300 of the potential 500 subscriber households with this particular expansion. Three more neighborhoods are lined up for expansion this summer and into the fall.
The city provides several options for residents in Ammon, including the Local Improvement District (LID) approach, to finance expansions of the infrastructure. Their method allows the community to continue to build the network without borrowing or bonding. Community members within the boundaries of the project area can sign up at the beginning of the process to pay for connecting over a 20-year period. If they decide to pass initially and connect later, they must pay the connection fee out of pocket. In 2018, the city of Ammon developed this explainer video:
If people want to pay the full connection fee all at once, they have the option to do so, but many people choose to pay through the LID. Connecting to the networks usually costs between $3,000 - $3,500. Groups of neighbors come together to create the LIDs because deploying in an area where there are multiple homes interested in connecting to the network is less expensive than a single home connection. The more property owners who opt in to connect to City of Ammon Fiber Optics, the lower the cost is to every one who wants to connect.
Keeping it Clear
To most people, connecting to the Internet means a bill from an Internet access company such as Comcast or AT&T. Subscribers who obtain Internet access from large...Read more
Idaho Falls residents in select areas are now able to tap into fast, affordable, reliable connectivity through their city’s fiber optic network. Idaho Falls Fiber (IFF) and Idaho Falls Power (IFP) recently announced that premises in three residential areas of the city can now sign-up to connect to the open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
Check out the IFF Fiber Service Areas Map.
With A Little Help From UTOPIA
Idaho Falls has operated Circa, a municipally owned dark fiber network for around eight years. The infrastructure has been managed by IFP to offer connectivity to local businesses and municipal facilities, but a few years ago, community leaders began investigating ways to use the resource for residential purposes.
After working with two separate consulting firms and reviewing options and recommendations, city leaders decided to move forward. Located across the Snake River from Ammon, Idaho Falls may have been inspired by the accolades Ammon has collected in developing their open access software defined network. With significant infrastructure in place via the Circa Network, a residential pilot program is a logical step toward improving connectivity for the entire community.
Idaho Falls leadership began collaborating with folks from UTOPIA Fiber, who they hired to design and manage the pilot. As in places such as Owensboro, Kentucky and Anacortes, Washington, the city chose to pursue the pilot to examine how FTTH might be received by residents, what technical issues might arise, and to help spread the word that high-quality Internet access would be available from the municipal utility.
"We'll see how the economics work out in this, what the, you know, support is within the community, support is within the neighborhoods," [General Manager of IFF and IFP Bear...