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Glenwood Springs, Colorado: Fiber Frontier

Glenwood Springs was the first community in Colorado to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, the Community Broadband Network (CBN), and offer services to local businesses. The community, originally named “Defiance,” was also one of the first U.S. communities to have electric lights. Their open access municipal network has improved connectivity throughout the community and helped establish robust competition in this western frontier town.

Dial-Up Just Didn’t Do It; City Steps In

Bob Farmer, Information Systems Director at Glenwood Springs, spoke with Christopher Mitchell for episode #206 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and he shared some of the network’s history. Before community leaders chose to take matters into their own hands, Qwest (now CentuyLink) and AT&T were offering dial-up services to residents and businesses. The city approached the incumbents and asked them to make upgrades to improve local connectivity but were told by both companies that they had no plans to make improvements.

Bruce Munroe, former Director of Information Services, was interviewed in 2005 about the community's plan to invest in fiber and the incumbents' reaction. He said:

“When we started, we were told that it wouldn’t be profitable for them to provide service,” says Munroe. “But they also said ‘you can’t do it either.’ There was no interest in [pursuing] anything until we said we were going to do it.” Glenwood moved ahead anyway after its city council approved a municipal service plan based on keeping businesses in town. “We were protecting our economic base,” says Munroe, who noted that businesses were leaving because they didn’t have speedy access to the Internet. 

Farmer recalls that a citizens group formed to advance the prospect of publicly owned Internet infrastructure. While a plan surfaced to offer triple-play via fiber-optic connectivity to the entire community, pushback from local fixed wireless Internet access providers and other businesses eventually led community leaders to scale back. The city chose instead to offer businesses and community anchor institutions (CAI) connectivity via an open access fiber-optic network in 2000-2001 and use the backbone to create a fixed wireless network for residential access. While a number of private wireless providers used the CBN to offer residential services, the city did not actually offer fixed wireless directly to residents until 2009. According to Farmer, they never advertised and had less than one percent of the subscriber base.

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In his interview with Christopher, Farmer described some of the difficulties with the plan in a town the size of Glenwood Springs where there were already a number of wireless providers:

“[A]t that point we were directly competing with the existing wireless providers and many of them became resellers on our network”

There were a relatively high number of wireless providers offering services in Glenwood Springs - as many as seven at one time - which made the market very competitive. Farmer believes the town's population of a little less than 10,000 does not support a high number of competitors. Connectivity throughout the community is certainly better than it was before the public investment, but it has been a challenging journey, recalls Farmer.

As Farmer also noted in the interview, the open access model created problems when larger regional providers bought out smaller local ISPs. When providers on the CBN were not dedicated enough to maintain relationships with the customers they served the city felt the fallout. Customers encountered problems with the network and let their providers know, but the providers failed to promptly inform the Glenwood Springs Internet division. As a result, customers were frustrated and chose to cancel service.

Anchor institutions and businesses still connected via the fiber-optic network, but connecting included hefty installation charges. Over time, the city drastically lowered the connection charges, encouraging more businesses and institutions to connect to the CBN. Glenwood Springs has forged ahead to bring better connectivity to local businesses and CAIs and, while the city has had to contend with the problems of being one of several providers in a competitive market, the CBN has created an environment beyond one or two providers and prices are held in check.

City Savings

In addition to keeping prices reasonable for businesses and CAIs, the city is able to keep its own telecommunications costs down by self-provisioning. Farmer estimates that Glenwood Springs saves approximately $140,000 per year because it uses the CBN rather than obtaining comparable services from a private provider. He adds that, because the network adds redundancy, savings may actually be much higher; with a network that doesn't go down, efficiency is always optimal.

There are 25 municipal facilities connected to the CBN, including wastewater, water treatment, and electric department facilities. Glenwood Springs also uses the CBN to connect fires stations, the Community Center, and its Municipal Operations Center.

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Just as importantly, Glenwood Springs is able to budget because their costs are predictable. When local communities depend on big private providers for services, they are at a disadvantage because those corporations have the ability to increase rates and communities have little say in the matter. If a community has no alternate provider, they have no leverage to negotiate.

In Martin County, Florida, for example, the franchise agreement between the county and Time Warner Cable was coming to a close. The ISP planned to raise rates by more than 800 percent. Rather than submit to corporate piracy, the community partnered with the school district and invested in their own Internet infrastructure. In addition to taking control of their own connectivity decisions, Martin County and its parner are saving millions each year.

A Plan To Expand, A Vote To Reclam Autority

By 2008, the municipal electric utility had invested approximately $3.5 million to deploy the fiber system for communications purposes and the electric system. The city began to consider using the network for more than just business connectivity, possibly offering services directly to residents.

At the time, Public Works Director Robin Millyard said, “It’s like having a Ferrari in a garage on a gravel road.” The City Manager noted that the network was, “[A] tremendous asset available to this community that’s being underutilized.”

The city considered the possibility of selling off the wireless network and expanding the existing fiber-optic network to serve all businesses and households in the community in order to offer triple-play. The city had already commissioned a feasibility study to look at the plan. City leaders anticipated funding the $12 million expansion with a revenue bond.

By 2008, Colorado's SB 152 had passed the state legislature, so before the city could expand their offerings, the voters had to reclaim local authority through referendum. In April, voters passed the measure 707 to 605 in the single-issue election. The municipality now had the legal option to expand its network. If any future expansion required issuing a revenue bond or some other form of bond, the community would need to vote again to authorize the financing. After several months of study, however, the City Council ultimately chose not to pursue such a big project.

Instead, Glenwood Springs decided to begin providing direct Internet access to businesses, rather than only offering the fiber infrastructure on which third party providers could offer services to commercial subscribers. By working directly with commercial customers, the city was able to improve its reputation and take on more customers. The demand for services from the city has risen approximately 20 percent each year. He attributes the increased interest in the city’s efforts in part to better customer service.

The CBN Today And Tomorrow

Businesses can sign up for one of three tiers, with all speeds symmetrical so upload is as fast as download, a critical component of business Internet access.

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All tiers include a public IP address, no data cap limit, and no long term contract:

  • Fiber Optic 50 - 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $70 per month
  • Fiber Optic 100 - 100 Mbps for $105 per month
  • Fiber Optic 250 - 250 Mbps for $175 per month

Glenwood Springs CBN also offers Enterprise services that include speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) and private network connectivity with speeds as fast as 10 Gbps.

The fixed wireless service the city offers to residents is being discontinued because there are ample wireless providers in Glenwood Springs and because the equipment is outdated. Instead, the community is looking again at the possibility of providing connectivity directly to residents, this time via Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Glenwood Springs is engaged in the operations and maintenance phase of a pilot project that has passed 36 homes. The pilot project is testing the waters in one neighborhood; nine households have subscribed so far. Subscribers can choose basic service of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) upload and download (symmetrical) for $40 per month or symmetrical Gigbit service (1000 Mbps) for $780 per month. The pilot program cost just under $20,000 from the electric utility's existing budget.

An increasing number of communities are choosing to experiment with pilot programs, such as Owensboro, Kentucky, and Westfield, Massachusetts. As well as giving the community a chance to see the advantages of superior Internet access, thus raising demand, a pilot project provides the opportunity to resolve unanticipated problems with technology or administrative operations.

The Future In "Defiance" And Elsewhere In Colorado

They call themselves Glenwood Springs, but this western Colorado town of about 10,000 people have held on to the spirit of those who called it "Defiance." The people of the community are deciding for themselves the best course and following their own path. Each election season - fall and spring - more communities are asking voters to exercise that spirit by opting out of SB 152 and taking back local authority. Glenwood Springs was the first and has been joined by dozens of others; we expect to see more who choose to exercise their right to self-determination.

Soon, Faster Internet Service For Santa Cruz's Small Businesses

As the city of Santa Cruz and local Internet service provider Cruzio bring their negotiations to a close, the parties have been working diligently to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. Announced in June 2015, this public private partnership intends to build a multi-million dollar fiber network throughout the city.

According to Cruzio's most recent blog update:

[W]e’ve been locked away in our Santa Cruz Fiber Project underground bunker with our partners at the City, engaging in high-level cogitation, extreme fine-tuning and the general hashing out of every little detail of the project and the agreement.

Local news station KION covered the benefits of faster Internet service, especially for the small business community in Santa Cruz. The news station also includes a clip from a recent “City Hall to You” community meeting where people learned more about the network.

A Small Business Town

“It's absolutely critical. Without high-speed Internet activity here, we would be dead in the water,”

Explained Susan Pappas, the owner of True Olive Connection, a local olive oil store. She described how her business would fall apart without high-speed Internet access. Everything from printers to inventory would stop working.

At the “City Hall to You” meeting, Santa Cruz Economic Development Manager J. Guevara laid out the facts, emphasizing how Internet access is not just for tech startups. High-speed Internet access makes small businesses function and helps job-seekers find employment. Guevara told KION,

“Over 82 percent of the businesses in the city of Santa Cruz are 10 or fewer employees. This is a small business town and Internet is the infrastructure that makes it all possible.”

Infrastructure from Santa Cruz and Cruzio

The $45 million dollar infrastructure project is a public-private partnership where the city will own the network and Cruzio will operate it. For the first few years, Cruzio will be the sole service provider. After that initial period, the network will become open access and other providers will be invited to offer competitive services. In December 2015, the city council unanimously voted to move ahead with the project.

Check out these Power Point slides from Guevara’s presentation in a May webinar presented by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

CityLink Telecommunications in Albuquerque Prefers Open Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 208

A small telecommunications company in Albuquerque embodies much of the philosophy that has powered the Internet. And CityLink Telecommunications President John Brown credits Vint Cerf for some of that inspiration.

John Brown joins us for episode 208 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, where we talk not just about how enthusiastic he is for open access, but how he writes open access requirements into contracts to ensure CityLink would continue to operate on an open access basis even if he were struck down by an errant backhoe.

We also discuss the Internet of Things and security before finishing with a discussion of how he thinks the city of Albuquerque should move forward with his firm to save money and improve Internet access across the community. We also touch on Santa Fe's decision to work with a different company in building their short spur to bypass a CenturyLink bottleneck.

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 36 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Warren County, KY, RFI: Responses Due July 8th

Warren County, Kentucky, issued a Request for Information (RFI) in June to find partners in order to improve connectivity for local businesses and residents. County officials want to develop a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network and are willing to consider both publicly owned and privately owned options. RFI responses are due July 8th.

The community has prioritized the following in its RFI:

  1. A community-wide FTTP work to serve both businesses and homes
  2. An open access model to encourage competition
  3. A financially sustainable network
  4. A network that provides affordable base-level service for everyone

Warren County

There are approximately 120,500 people in Warren County with about half living in the county seat, Bowling Green. After Louisville and Lexington, Bowling Green is the most populous. Located in the south central area of the state, Warren County is about 548 square miles. This region of the state had a relatively high growth rate of 24 percent between 2003 and 2014 and Warren County officials want to continue that trend with better connectivity.

In addition to Western Kentucky University, there are several other colleges and technical colleges in the region. STEM education at both the college and K-12 levels is prevalent in Warren County. The area is home to the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematic and Science,  which was named best high school in America three years in a row by Newsweek.

There is a range of industry, including finance, health care, agriculture, and manufacturing. The community seeks to improve connectivity to retain a number of its employers as well as diversify its economy further, encourage better services for residents, and spark competition.

Don't Delay

Get the details on Warren County's RFI by accessing their Bids Calendar. Responses to this RFI are due by July 8th. You can also contact Brenda Hale with questions: brenda.hale(at)ky.gov.

Ammon's Network of the Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 207

On the heals of releasing our video on Ammon, Idaho, we wanted to go a little more in-depth with Bruce Patterson. Bruce is Ammon's Technology Director and has joined us on the show before (episodes 173 and 86). We recommend watching the video before listening to this show.

We get an update from Bruce on the most recent progress since we conducted the video interviews. He shares the current level of interest from the first phase and expectations moving forward.

But for much of our conversation, we focus on how Ammon has innovated with Software-Defined Networks (SDN) and what that means. We talk about how the automation and virtualization from SDN can make open access much more efficient and open new possibilities.

Check out Ammon's Get Fiber Now signup page or their page with more information.

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 27 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Ammon's Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies

The city of Ammon, Idaho, is building the Internet network of the future. Households and businesses can instantly change Internet service providers using a specially-designed innovative portal. This short 20 minute video highlights how the network is saving money, creating competition for broadband services, and creating powerful new public safety applications.

We talk with Ammon's Mayor, local residents, private businesses, and the city's Technology Director to understand why a small conservative city decided to build its own network and then open it to the entire community. We explain how they financed it and even scratch the surface of how software-defined networking brought the future of Internet services to Ammon before any larger metro regions.

Ammon's network has already won awards, including a National Institute of Justice Challenge for Best Ultra-High Speed Application, and spurred economic development. But perhaps most important is that most communities can replicate this model and bring these benefits to their communities.

For more information, see our in-depth coverage on Ammon. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay informed on what local governments are doing to improve Internet access.

View the video below, or on YouTube here. Please share widely!

Glenwood Springs Shares Lessons Learned - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 206

Last week, while at my favorite regional broadband conference - Mountain Connect, I was asked to moderate a panel on municipal fiber projects in Colorado. You can watch it via the periscope video stream that was recorded. It was an excellent panel and led to this week's podcast, a discussion with Glenwood Springs Information Systems Director Bob Farmer.

Bob runs the Glenwood Springs Community Broadband Network, which has been operating for more than 10 years. It started with some fiber to anchor institutions and local businesses and a wireless overlay for residential access. Though the network started by offering open access, the city now provides services directly. We discuss the lessons learned.

Bob also discusses what cities should look for in people when staffing up for a community network project and some considerations when deciding who oversees the network. Finally, he shares some of the successes the network has had and what continues to inspire him after so many years of running the network.

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 21 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Ammon's Local Improvement District Gets City Council Blessing

Now that a judge has legally approved it, Ammon is forging ahead with an innovative approach to financing Internet infrastructure in Idaho.

On May 19th, the city council unanimously voted to create a Local Improvement District (LID). Ammon’s decision has secured a way to finance its open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Local Improvement Districts: You're In or You're Out

LIDs have been used for fiber-optic infrastructure in other places, such as New Hampshire and Poulsbo, Washington, but the approach is still not widespread. In Ammon, the city council's action creates a district from five subdivisions, where residents can “opt in” or “opt out” of participation in the FTTH network. The district includes 376 individual properties, and 188 of those property owners have expressed a desire to "opt in" to the benefits, and costs, of the network. Those who have chosen to "opt out" do not use the network, nor do they pay for deployment.

LIDs are specifically designed to take advantage of any boost to local property value -- and studies have linked FTTH with increased local property values. We’ve previously summarized the most common ways communities finance networks, but LIDs are a little different.

  1. The local community creates a “district” to issue improvement bonds. In this case, the district consists of five subdivisions of the city.
  2. Selling those improvement bonds will fund the construction of the local infrastructure project. For Ammon, that’s the open access FTTH network. 
  3. The bonds will then be paid for by an assessment on each of the properties that benefit from the network - only the households that choose to "opt in."

A Few Dollars A Month For Infrastructure

When Ammon’s IT Director, Bruce Patterson, joined the Community Broadband Bits Podcast in Episode 173, he explained Ammon's LID plan. Chris brought in real-world examples and questions of what LIDs mean for individual homeowners.

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Chris Mitchell: Basically I could opt in and then there would be, based on the number of people that are opting in and the cost, that would determine how much it would cost for me and I could either write you a check for all of it, or I could put it on my property taxes?

Bruce Patterson: That's exactly right so if you want to pay for all of it, part of it up front, you can let it be bonded for. You can go down and pay a portion of it and then it's just collected as we say through your regular assessment on your property tax until it's paid off.

Patterson estimated that monthly assessment on property taxes for those who "opt in" would probably be about $15 to $20. Only those residents who "opt in" have an assessment on their property taxes. If a resident does not want the fiber, there is no assessment on that resident’s property tax.

To connect to the Internet, residents will also need to sign up with one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offering retail services via the open access fiber network. The city will also offer a low cost, no frills, basic option that will allow those that "opt in" the ability to perform basic tasks, like check email. 

Next Steps

Now that Ammon city council has created the LID, residents in those five subdivisions will have to choose whether to “opt in” or “opt out” of the FTTH project. Individual residents must now decide if they want next-generation connectivity. With 188 of 376 individual property owners "opting in" (a take rate of about 50 percent) Ammon should soon have that last mile up and running.

OK, Just What Does Open Access Mean Anymore?

In our experience, just about every community considering building a community network considers open access. They want to enable new choices for services and often would prefer the local government avoid directly competing with existing service providers, for a variety of reasons. However, we are only tracking 30 open access networks on our just-released Open Access resource page.

Many of the communities that start off enthusiastic about open access ultimately decide to have a single service provider (themselves or a contractor) to have more certainty over the revenues needed to pay operating expenses and debt. We believe this will change as the technology matures and more communities embrace software-defined networks (SDN) -- but before tackling that topic, we think it is important to discuss the meaning of open access.

On a regular basis, I get an email from one deep-thinking person or another that says, "That network isn't really open access." They almost always make good points. The problem is that different people embrace open access for different reasons - they often have different expectations of outcomes. Understanding that is key to evaluating open access.

How Many ISPs?

One of the key questions centers on how many providers a household is likely to be able to choose from. Various factors, including the network architecture and economics of becoming a service provider, will influence this outcome.

Some communities simply seek to avoid a monopoly network - they are focused on the idea of potential competition. For instance, we believe Huntsville's model and agreement with Google can be considered open access because any party could lease fiber from the utility to compete with Google. However, we believe the costs of doing so by using that network architecture make robust competition unlikely.

If Google is a strong competitor in Huntsville, they will likely not face significant competition from other ISPs on the utility fiber though AT&T and Comcast will still use their networks to compete. But in the event that Google is not a strong competitor, the door will be open to other ISPs to give people a better choice. It is extremely unlikely that this arrangement would give residents many choices for Internet access, but it is an improvement over the one or two pathetic incumbent options most of us face. Google is left with an incentive to meet user expectations, knowing that it could face competition if people are unsatisfied.

The UTOPIA model has resulted in many more choices for both businesses and residents, but most of those businesses are offering similar services at similar prices. The fact that it does not carry a "marquee" provider like Google or a national cable company on it may make brand awareness (and therefore marketing) more difficult, but it also provides opportunities for excellent local firms like XMission to thrive.

Simultaneous Services

This leads into a second question: can a premise subscribe to multiple service providers simultaneously or do they have to choose one? This may sound like a dumb question at first - why would you want to subscribe to two different ISPs? Aside from perhaps wanting video or phone services from one and Internet access from another, many are hoping to see more innovation on this front. We have written frequently on Ammon, Idaho, because they are doing some of the best work in this regard.

The ability to offer simultaneous services depends greatly on the underlying technology. Not all FTTH networks can give ISPs the tools they need to have confidence in delivering a high quality product reliably to their subscribers. Communities that want to ensure they have this capacity should pick a consultant that deeply understands these issues and has worked previously on open access.

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The Holy Grail among those who prioritize this flavor of open access is to make it very easy for network subscribers to manage their own subscriptions - changing providers on the fly (and again, see Ammon for a model). This approach would allow ISPs to specialize and greatly encourage innovation, particularly for niche services. You might subscribe to an ISP that specializes in great connections for video games while also having a part of your connection dedicated to a home alarm system and still be able to initiate a high quality teleconference for health care that wasn't transported on the public Internet.

Market Entry Costs and Consequences

A key question about open access comes down to market entry costs. How much will it cost an ISP to serve potential subscribers? In Huntsville, the costs of building drops suggests it will still cost hundreds of dollars per sub, which is less than the $1,000+ per sub that it would likely cost to build a network from scratch.

We would generally expect that the lower the cost for an ISP to connect subscribers, the more ISPs would be on the network. However, there is an initially surprising problem that can arise when the cost to offer services is very low, something occasionally called "ruinous competition." This is used to various levels of seriousness but represents a common economic problem: if a product has little differentiation (like an ISP offering only Internet access), then subscribers are likely to decide on the ISP based solely on cost. Over time, ISPs will cut prices until the margin all but disappears, which runs most of the providers out of business (or they consolidate) and the competition effectively disappears.

One of the key points of the “ruinous competition” problem is whether ISPs are effectively providing the same thing (generic Internet access) or services (home security, remote backup, help desk, telemedicine, etc.). To the extent that they are offering different kinds of services, we can avoid that problem. However, it is not clear that most networks today are technically capable of allowing service providers to differentiate their services in any significant way, which is again why Ammon's forward-thinking software-defined networking approach is so important.

Like other aspects of technology, open access will evolve with innovation. For now, open access means different things to different people who are often seeking different outcomes.

Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous MuniNetworks.org stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!