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Iowa Knows Co-op Connectivity

Once again we return to Iowa to learn about community networks and high-speed connectivity. Home to municipal networks such as in Cedar Falls, Lenox, and Harlan, Iowa also grows publicly owned networks of a different kind - cooperatives’ networks. The Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association (WCTA) provides next-generation connectivity to rural areas, and is now upgrading infrastructure in its service area. WCTA uses Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology to provide Internet access of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Small Towns and Cities To Get An Upgrade

WCTA is now installing fiber in Forest City, home to about 4,000 people and the county seat of Winnebago County.

WCTA General Manager Mark Thoma told the Globe Gazette’s Forest City Summit newspaper, “We have to work closely with the city. Kudos to the city crew for locating (all the utilities). It’s been going very well.”

WCTA intends to install their fiber underground in Forest City and the municipal utilities department is facilitating the cooperative’s efforts by locating current utilities infrastructure. Collaborating will enable WCTA to bury their fiber without disrupting other services.

This upgrade to fiber will replace the copper lines towns served by WCTA, where members still use DSL. Customers in rural areas received an upgrade to FTTH several years ago. 

Rural Areas First

In 2011, WCTA received $19.6 million American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) award for a fiber broadband project in rural areas throughout its service territory. Half of the money was a grant, and the other half was a loan.

While finishing the fiber builds in these rural areas in 2015, WCTA automatically bumped up the speeds of all rural members. Previous top speeds of 15 Mbps jumped up to 100 Mbps via FTTH but the $65 per month subscription rate stayed the same. WCTA's fiber network speeds are symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are the same.

Cooperatives Have Annual Meetings

The WCTA 66th Annual Meeting takes place today; vaudeville performer Peter Bloedel of Minnesota will entertain the members as they decide on the future direction of the co-op. Governed by the people they serve, cooperatives should be invested in building a vibrant future for their communities. 

WCTA is just one of many cooperatives that has taken on a community network project. Last year, telecommunications co-op Wiatel began a $25 million fiber project in western Iowa. Cooperatives are proving to be a promising option in rural areas where big corporations like Comcast, Centurylink, or AT&T don't anticipate the profit margin they need for their shareholders.

To learn more about cooperatives and Internet access, visit our cooperative tag and check out the work of ILSR’s energy program: “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative” on the potential of rural electric cooperatives.

For Block Island, RI, a Better Network Could Be Blowin’ in the Wind

Eight strands of publicly available fiber optic cable made landfall on Block Island, Rhode Island this month, opening the door to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) for local businesses and residents. Local officials are moving forward with a once in a multi-generational opportunity to share an underwater cable with Deepwater Wind and National Grid. The energy companies are laying lines to the nearby Block Island Wind Farm

A Brief History of Eight Strands of Fiber

The island is home to only one municipality, New Shoreham, which covers the entire land mass. Block Island residents have struggled with poor utilities for more than a century. Located about 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, the island has never been connected to the mainland electrical grid or Internet backhaul network. As a result, the town of about 1,000 year-round residents has reported the highest energy costs outside of Alaska and dismal Internet speeds of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) or slower download and upload speeds that are even more lethargic.

Local residents have put up with unreliable DSL Internet access from incumbent provider Verizon; it delivers service via microwave antennae. The island’s lack of bandwidth was the talk of the town in 2014 when up to 20,000 tourists flooded the network during the summer months:

  • “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
  • “I was on the island for two weeks in July... We have Verizon and service was practically non-existent. My husband needed to complete some work and I was trying to update web pages I manage. Only had service downtown. Even the shop owners were having difficulties.”

Taking Advantage of the Sea Breeze

The first U.S. offshore wind farm is changing all of that. Eight years ago, Deepwater Wind and National Grid envisioned the five turbine pilot program they named the Block Island Wind Farm. Local officials convinced National Grid to include a mainland Internet connection in its undersea cable. Block Island Times reported on their success in 2012, 

“Deepwater will lay the cable at no cost to the town. At each end of the fiber optic cable, it would be the town’s responsibility to negotiate with a telecommunications service provider – be it Verizon, currently under fire for its DSL speeds here, or another provider.”

Options on the Horizon

The local government decided to move forward without Verizon. They hired a consultant in 2012 to advise the island on how to construct a publicly owned broadband network that will benefit future generations on Block Island. 

After a feasibility study in 2015, the town issued an RFI for potential partners - Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate a publicly owned network and potentially to build it. Earlier this year, the town narrowed down its options to two models under either GWI or Crocker Communications. From the RFI response memo

“Under both these models, the Town builds the complete (FTTP) network infrastructure, as well as the interconnection on the mainland from the National Grid cable to a negotiated point of presence for the selected provider. The Town is responsible for the fiber cable, electronics, real estate and structures. [The Town] received no responses under which the vendor would build a fiber network.”

Solving The Island Issue 

Block Island’s history is not unique - island communities often struggle to attract investment from larger ISPs as they are remote, sparsely populated, and often hilly. Islesboro, Maine, and Doe Bay, Washington, both suffered with unreliable, frustrating Internet connections and decided to take matters into their own hands. Islesboro’s 566 residents voted recently to bond and will build a gigabit FTTH network. Doe Bay became a self-reliant community with a fixed wireless system built and operated by its own residents

Early projections estimate a $4.3 million expense for Block Island’s network. Local residents are set to vote on bonding specifics at a town financial meeting later this summer. 

With the wind farm scheduled to be operational before the end of 2016 and the fiber network to be connected in early 2018, Block Island has taken massive steps towards a better future for its residents. They’ll be among the first communities in the world to power themselves with wind energy and own a next-generation fiber-optic network. 

New Braunfels Takes Next Step In Texas

At a recent City Council meeting, New Braunfels council members approved $57,000 in funding for Phase II of a study to explore the feasibility of constructing a city-owned fiber network. The city's Industrial Development Corporation (4B Board), which helps guide the city's economic development initiatives, previously recommended moving on to this next phase of the project. 

Because state laws in Texas prevent municipalities from offering retail telecommunications services, New Braunfels must advance carefully. The city is proceeding with the consultant's recommendation to pursue a public-private partnership (PPP) for the proposed network. With this second phase of the study, the consultant will help the city release a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit interest from would-be private Internet Service Providers (ISP) for the city-owned network.

Clarification from Christopher Mitchell: In Texas, the term telecommunications does not include Internet service. Communities cannot offer telephone service but are able to offer Internet only type services.

Some Findings from Phase I of the Feasibility Study

At a February 4B Board meeting, the New Braunfels Assistant City Manager Kristi Aday noted that the proposed network would cost the city somewhere in the range of $3 - $5 million. A major factor in determining the cost of the network, she said, is whether to use underground fiber for the network or to go with an aerial approach, using poles owned by New Braunfels Utilities.

The full feasibility study, presented at a special joint meeting between the City Council and the 4B Board in March, also reports the results of a survey in which 132 businesses in New Braunfels answered questions about their connectivity needs. According to the results of the survey, 78 percent of city businesses get their Internet service from AT&T DSL or coaxial cable Internet access from Time Warner Cable. Because both technologies rely on copper, many local businesses cannot obtain the high-quality Internet access required for daily operations.

Among the companies who responded, a full 81 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the limited speed and unreliability of their current Internet access. Consultants found that while 15 of the 5,600 companies in New Braunfels have paid to deploy fiber connections to their offices, more than 99 percent of the city’s businesses can't afford such an investment.

How Are We Supposed To Work This Way?

It was just a year ago when at the Texas Legislative Conference in New Braunfels, panelists were not able to take questions from remote attendees because the Internet connection at the Civic Convention Center hit a glitch. At the time, discussions of municipal Internet infrastructure had already started and local leaders understood the urgency:

“We have Texans from across the state here ... and we were dead in the water until 10 a.m.,” [Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Michael] Meek said. “That just heightens my awareness, and the awareness of others in the city, on why we’re doing this broadband initiative in town.”

He said the problem was with “the major Internet providers, which we continue to have problems with, whether it be the civic center or Wurstfest. Any business in town will tell you the same thing. That’s one of the reasons why the 4B Board and the chamber are jumping on top of this broadband initiative.”

Islesboro, Maine: RFP For FTTP Is Out There!

Islesboro is moving forward with plans to join Rockport, Sanford, and other Maine communities that want to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. They have released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to take them into the construction phase. From the Isleboro website:

The Town of Islesboro, Maine is seeking a contractor to manage the construction of a Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network spanning approximately 50 miles connecting 750 properties including a wireless component connecting outlying islands.

The Town is seeking bids for an Owner's Project Manager (OPM) to oversee fiber optic and wireless construction, network equipment installation, and inside wiring and customer premise installation.

Bids are due April 28th, 2016

The island town has also published a Question and Answer update to address common concerns.

The Maine Event

We have followed news of the proposed project, and learned that GWI will likely offer services via the publicly owned fiber infrastructure, much like in Rockport. Fairpoint DSL serves most of the island community's residents now and subscribers are not happy with unreliable, spotty Internet access. Last summer the community began the process of approving funding for the network, estimated at $2.5 - $3 million.

For more information, visit the Islesboro website.

Alaska Co-Op Upgrading to Fiber

It isn't very often we have the chance to share stories from the "Last Frontier," but a cooperative in the Valdez area is making news with a planned upgrade to fiber this summer.

DSL to Fiber

According to the Valdez Star, Copper Valley Telecom (CVT) subscribers will be enjoying a switch from old copper DSL Internet access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) when CVT upgrades its system. The new technology will also improve telephone service.

"Once complete, all voice and data will be delivered to the home over fiber optic line and the new electronic interface," CVT said. "Modems will also be replaced."

"There is no cost to the customer for the fiber installation," [CEO Dave] Dengel stated. "Customers will not be asked to pay for the new fiber or the electronics required for voice and Internet access."

Increasing Role of Co-Ops

CVT has served co-op members for more than 50 years with telephone service in the Valdez area and also serves the Copper River Valley and Cordova. Co-ops are bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas across the U.S. and we expect to see more upgrades as existing co-ops switch to fiber. Co-ops know that their future depends on the future of their members because they are members, too.

As CVT Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dengel, put it, "By upgrading our network from copper to fiber, Copper Valley Telecom is preparing the community for the future."

Service Unavailable: The Failure of Competition - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 196

If you are paying close attention to discussions about broadband policy, you may have come across Fred Pilot's reminders that competition is not a cure-all for our Internet access woes across the United States. The blogger and author joins us for episode 196 of Community Broadband Bits.

Fred Pilot's new book, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, discusses some of the history behind our current challenges and proposes a solution centered around federal funding and cooperatives.

We discuss the switch from telecommunications as a regulated utility, to which everyone was guaranteed access, to a system relying on competition, in which some people have many choices but others have no options. We also discuss the merits of a national solution vs encouraging more local approaches with federal financial assistance.

Fred's blog is Eldo Telecom and you can follow him on Twitter.

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 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 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."

Pulaski, Tennessee: "A Community Investing In Itself" With Better Connectivity

Pulaski, located in the area Tennesseans describe as the southern middle region of the state, has a fiber network other communities covet. When we contacted Wes Kelley, one of the people instrumental in establishing the network, he told us that the community always wanted to be more than "just Mayberry." Rather than settle for the sleepy, quaint, character of the fictional TV town, local leaders in Pulaski chose to invest in fiber infrastructure for businesses and residents.

A Legacy That Lives On

The county seat of Giles County, Pulaski has a long history of municipal utility service. The electric system was founded in 1891, and is the oldest in the state. The city also provides municipal water, sewer, and natural gas service. The electric utility, Pulaski Electric System (PES), serves most of Giles County, which amounts to approximately 15,000 customers. PES receives power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then distributes it throughout the county.

Pulaski is now known for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, PES Energize, but the city's first adventure in providing municipal Internet access began in 1993. The city developed dial-up service and within five years, 1,500 homes were using the service. The city abandoned the dial-up service to offer Wi-Fi but then sold that system to a private company.

Preparing PES

Leaders in Pulaski had their sights on connectivity beyond the limits of Wi-Fi. In 2002, Mayor Dan Speer and Dan Holcomb, the New CEO of PES, began exploring a publicly owned fiber network. Holcomb had previously lead a Michigan utility that offered cable TV and so used his experience to help establish the PES Energize network. AT&T (BellSouth at the time) provided DSL service and Charter offered cable Internet access but neither company performed to the satisfaction of the community. In fact, Pulaski had always suffered through poor quality service from its incumbents.

When Holcomb arrived, the community engaged a consultant for a feasibility study to examine in detail the idea of a publicly owned fiber network; Holcomb, Speer, and the rest of the city's leadership were not confident about the results. Before the community moved forward, Holcomb felt it was important they carry out a customer survey and a second feasibility study. In the spring of 2003, the organization undertook a survey and used the results to ready the utility to step into its approaching role as a municipal network utility.

seal-tennessee.png

Ready For The Next Step

Two years later, city and utility leadership felt that they were ready and completed a second feasibility study. This time, the results suggested a better outcome if Pulaski decided to invest in a publicly owned fiber network. In the spring of 2005, Pulaski developed a business plan that was approved in March by Tennessee's State Comptroller, as required by state law. In May, the city council voted to issue $8.5 million in General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance FTTH deployment and a data center.

Kelley had worked on a similar project in Hillsdale, Michigan, and even though Holcomb had asked him to work on the Pulaski project, Kelley was reluctant. Hillsdale had not pursued a network and Kelley did not want another disappointment. Once Pulaski's utility board and city council backed the plan, he knew the project had the support to move forward. Kelley accepted a position as Chief Marketing Officer for the utility. (Kelley talks more about his experience in Pulaski, Hillsdale, and his current role in Columbia, Tennessee, in episode 189 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Check it out to learn more.)

GO bonds are not one of the three most used types of financing for municipal networks but Kelley explained why they worked well for Pulaski. When a community chooses to fund any project with GO bonds, investors have an added measure of safety because the project and the loan are backed by the full faith and credit of the community. In other words, the issuing jurisdiction can use its taxing authority to pay back the debt, if necessary. As a result, the municipality, county, or other government entity issuing the bonds obtain very low interest rates. GO bonds require that the project developed be owned by the community and funds are typically used for projects that will be used by the entire community.

People Grow The Asset

Construction started in 2006, with fiber following the path of the existing power lines - when the lines were aerial, the fiber was installed on poles and when lines went underground, the new network followed suit. PES took the same approach with street lines and drops to homes. Line construction was completed in September 2006; the utility finished its Network Operations Center in November, and began testing right away. 

PES Energize began offering residential triple-play of cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet services in January 2007 but its formal launch was not until the spring of 2007. When the network launched, it offered services at download speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 10 Mbps, and 20 Mbps. Since then, speeds have increased. High-speed Internet access, video, and telephone are available in a variety of bundles or subscribers can purchase stand-alone Internet access for $35.95 (25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload), $75.95 (50 Mbps download / 7 Mbps upload), or $100.00 (100 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload) per month.

By the time Wes Kelley left for his new position as Executive Director of Columbia Power and Water in 2012, PES Energize had achieved a 45 percent take rate. According to Mike Hollis, in charge of sales for PES Energize, the utility expands the network incrementally every year. By the end of January 2016, the network passed 5,609 homes and businesses. The utility's take rate is just under 49 percent in total with 2,729 of those properties passed subscribing to PES Energize.

According to Hollis, customers in rural areas are speeding up the expansions by footing the bill themselves. In PES' electric service area beyond the current network footprint, residents and business owners have approached the utility to ask for an estimate on the cost of expansion to their neighborhood. PES provides a figure for materials and pole attachment costs. Increasingly, these small pockets of rural neighborhoods, with nothing but dial-up or satellite, will chip in to pay for the construction. The neighborhood group cuts a check and the utility expands the network to that area.

Hollis noted that a local realtor is organizing the most recent example of a would-be subscriber funded expansion. He can't sell houses in his neighborhood where there is no high quality Internet access; homebuyers don't want houses with dial-up or satellite. He and his neighbors see the move as a necessary investment so he is leading the effort to obtain contributions from people in the neighborhood to pay for the fiber expansion.

Businesses In Mind

When PES launched, it also offered dark fiber leasing for organizations that wished to manage their own data needs. Most businesses in Pulaski purchase lit services and/or use the utility's data center. The facility housed a colocation facility, hosting services, and offsite data storage and was designed to withstand an F5 tornado.

logo-pulaski.gif

In 2011, Speers, who had transitioned from Mayor to Executive Director of the Pualski-Giles County Economic Development Council, discussed how the network had improved functionality for local businesses in an interview with Craig Settles. Whether a local printer sending artwork to Los Angeles or a graphic artist sending catalogue material to Canada, Pulaski businesses heaved a sigh of relief when they tapped into PES Energize. Businesses today overwhelmingly choose PES Energize - 82 percent of those passed subscribe.

From the interview:

"The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, then that’s gravy.

During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have."

Looking At The Long Term

Pulaski has not experienced significant population growth since investing in PES Energize, but it has managed to avoid decline, a problem gripping similarly sized communities in the region. Tullahoma is a little over an hour away, Columbia is less than 45 minutes north; both communities offer potential employers municipal fiber connectivity. Pulaski made the investment first and can still compete for economic development opportunities in a peaceful setting.

When new businesses look for a location to open a facility where high-speed connectivity is a must, and search for a "Mayberry" to attract a quality workforce, Pulaski is on the short list because of its municipal fiber network.

Wes Kelley recognizes the long-term value of Pulaski's decision to create Internet network infrastructure. When we spoke with him for this article he reinforced what local officials and their constituents all over tell us - that the people of Pulaski knew the best course for themselves:

"It's a community investing in itself. Pulaski spent $8.5 million. They could have spent $8.5 million building a new rec center and a new pool but they didn't. They decided to put it in the air and in the ground to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years. I think that's a powerful decision but it is a local decision…local control is critically important."

Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.

This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.

Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.

To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.

Download it here, share it, pass it on.

Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

South Central Communications Bringing Fiber to Members in Utah, Arizona

Another rural communications cooperative is upgrading its current system to a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. South Central Communications (SCC), is in the process of deploying fiber to all of its 23 member communities in Utah and the few it serves just across the Arizonia border. The cooperative started as South Central Utah Telephone Association in 1953.

An Investment For Today And Tomorrow

Construction began in 2015 and should be completed by the end of 2016, reports the Southern Utah News. Kanab, population 4,300, is the first community to receive the upgrade from the coop's DSL network to the new fiber infrastructure. All of Kanabs schools, municipal facilities, libraries, homes, and businesses will connect to the network, SCC President and CEO Michael East told the News:

“We are making this investment because we believe it will contribute to the economic vitality of our community and allow us to serve this great place we call home with the best communications network available today.”

During the initial build, connections to the new fiber will be free of charge. If customers pass on the offer the first time around decide to connect later, they will be charged an installation fee. FTTH connectivity typically increases home values, so even if customers decide to pass on taking fiber service, there is no down side to connecting to the network.

FTTH Internet access from SCC is available in 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 15 Mbps, or 50 Mbps for $34.95, $54.95, and $64.95 per month respectively. Gigabit per second (Gbps) access is available for $89.95 per month.

It's About More Than Profit

SCC is one of an increasing number of rural cooperatives offering fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to communities where big corporate providers don't invest. Publicly owned networks, like cooperatives owned by the people who use them, have an interest in the well-being of the community, rather than only in extracting profit from subscribers. 

East concluded by saying “We are excited to be bringing this fiber network to Kanab. I am excited about the tremendous and much needed opportunities it will provide…[I]t’s the educational opportunities, and the improvements in healthcare that are available via the tele-health initiatives that I am excited about.  And we can’t forget about the hundreds, if not thousands of home-based jobs that are now available to people by virtue of having access to this new fiber network. I guess what I am saying is, I am excited about the opportunities for Kanab as a whole.” 

Speeds Up, Prices Steady (or Down!) With EC Fiber

The East-Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (EC Fiber) recently announced plans to increase speeds across tiers with no increase in prices.

Changes will look like this:

  • "Basic" will increase from 7 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)
  • "Standard" will increase from 20 to 25 Mbps
  • "Ultra" will double from 50 to 100
  • The new "Wicked" plan will increase from 100 to 500 AND will include a price decrease. (Current subscribers to the Wicked tier who pay for 400 Mbps will also get the bump up to 500 Mbps and the price decrease.)

All speeds from EC Fiber are symmetrical so both download and upload are equally fast.

Self-Funded at the Start

Twenty-four communities in Vermont make up the consortium which began in 2009. The towns joined forces to deploy a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network when large corporate incumbent providers chose to invest elsewhere. Slow DSL was the best option in the area and local residents, businesses, and local institutions needed better connectivity.

Individual investors funded the initial network buildout but last year a new Vermont law took affect that allows towns to create "communications union districts." EC Fiber now functions under such a governance structure and organization officials expect to more easily attract larger investors and borrow at lower interest rates. EC Fiber hopes to answer requests to expand beyond its 24 member towns.

Characteristic Altruism

Increasing speeds with little or no rate increases is typical of publicly owned network communities. Tullahoma's LightTUBe, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, and Lafayette's LUS Fiber have done it, often with little or no fanfare.

Publicly owned networks are also known to shun data caps, another tool big players like Comcast use to squeeze every penny out of subscribers. EC Fiber summed up why data caps are inconsistent with the publicly owned network philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.