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Garrett County, Maryland: Access For Anchors In The Appalachians

Garrett County is the westernmost county in Maryland. High in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain Range; winters are harsh and forest covers 90 percent of the county. Before the county deployed a fiber-optic network, high-quality connectivity was hard to come by for schools, libraries, and other community anchor institutions. By making the most of every opportunity, Garrett County has improved efficiencies for the many small communities in the region and set the stage to improve connectivity for businesses and residents.

Rural, Remote, Ready For Better Connectivity

The county is more than 650 square miles but there are no large urban centers and over time a number of sparsely populated areas have developed as home to the county's 30,000 people; since 2000, population growth has stagnated. Many of the tiny communities where businesses and residents have clustered are remote and do not have public sewer or water. These places tend to have a high number of low-income people. 

Unemployment rates are volatile in Garrett County, fluctuating with natural resources extraction industries. As the coal and lumber industries have waned, many jobs in Garrett County have disappeared. Garrett County Memorial Hospital and Beitzel industrial construction employ over 300 people and are the county’s largest employers. 

All of these characteristics make Garrett County unattractive to the large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that want to maximize investment and focus only on densely populated urban areas. Verizon offers DSL and Comcast offers cable in limited areas but many people rely on mobile Internet access and expensive satellite Internet access.

It Started With BTOP Fiber

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In 2010, the State of Maryland received over $115 million in grant funding through the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP). With a matching $43 million from state and in-kind contributions, Maryland deployed the One Maryland Broadband Network (OMBN). In August 2013, the middle mile fiber-optic network was complete, stretching 1,324 miles across the state connecting 1,068 CAIs.

OMBN runs directly into Garrett County for approximately 50 miles. Since then, the county has added fiber when they have had the funds. They have not borrowed or bonded to fund deployment, but obtained a grant from the Appalachian Resource Council (ARC) to extend the fiber from OMBN and to purchase equipment to light the network. The largest expansion was funded with a $250,000 ARC grant. The County invested $250,000 of its own funds to total $500,000 for the initial investment into Garrett County’s fiber network. Since then, the county has collaborated with other entities to reduce costs and extend the network farther in a series of smaller expansions.

Getting Public Facilities Connected

BTOP funds were used to connect 32 CAIs, and the county’s efforts connected 18 more to Garrett County’s network. In addition to libraries, municipal administrative facilities, and the county hospital, all but two county schools are connected. The network also connects other public facilities, including a senior center, a local college, and a career center. Town halls across the county are also on the network and there is fiber connecting several industrial parks. In addition to connecting CAIs and public entities to the network, the county deploys wide area networks (WANs) between facilities so the larger institutions with the right personnel can manage their own internal networks.

Garrett County took an opportunistic approach to significantly reduce costs as they connected more facilities and entities. They were able to save approximately $17,000 when connecting the Airport and Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Nathaniel Watkins, Garrett County CIO of the Department of Technology and Communications (DoTCOM), told us the County Road Department dug the trenches, installed conduit, and handled all the physical plant. “I’m really cheap,” said Watkins. He’s developed a talent for collaborating with other state and county entities and staying on top of current and future projects so he can to work with other departments to cut costs.

DoTCOM funds and leads many of the projects. Two entities located in the Grantsville Outreach Center contributed 50 percent of the fiber so they could both obtain fiber connectivity. For connections to two other locations, Watkins discovered that conduit already existed to the buildings as part of the original design. DoTCOM purchased special terminated fiber and connected the facilities “for pennies on the dollar.” Another project included funds budgeted for security camera installation. By connecting that fiber project to the larger network, Watkins extended the reach of the county network at no extra cost.

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Yet another project involved partnering with the state for an emergency services project that included a 700 Megahertz fiber/wireless project. Watkins’ department is “riding their coattails” and installing county fiber alongside state fiber in places where they consider it to be potentially advantageous for the future. This means no cost for trenching or burying fiber.

Ok for MOU

Garrett County has limited personnel needed to manage a fiber network. They choose to transfer ownership of public fiber to the state of Maryland and obtain a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The arrangement allows them access to the fiber without the financial burden of maintaining it; Garrett County only needs to employ one person to handle pole attachments, breaks, and other tasks. Because federal funds have paid for most of the asset and the county does not have the resources to dedicate to long-term maintenance, the system is right for them.

Better Services, Better Savings

In addition to providing connectivity by deploying the infrastructure to CAI’s, Watkins says that the county also operates as an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The benefit for customers, especially for county schools, has been two-fold: better connectivity and lower prices. When Garrett County Public Schools obtained service from large private providers, they paid a broad range of prices for many different speeds. 

Before the fiber deployment, most schools needed to lease T1 lines at an average of $400 per month per facility just to get 1.5 Mbps, in addition to paying $50 - $150 per month for Internet access. Each facility ended up paying up to $550 per month for very slow access.

Now, there are ten schools that connect to the fiber and that share the cost of single Internet connection, which is a little more than $800 per month, or about $80 per facility. That connection feeds into a central data center and provides 300 Mbps symmetrical service to the school district as a whole. Each facility then decides what speed they want to connect back to the main data system. Some choose 500 Mbps Internet access from the county for $750 per month while others purchase 250 Mbps for $500. For a nominal increase, the schools capacity now is blasting away what they used to obtain from old, outdated T1 lines. The federal program that reimburses schools for telecommunications expenses, E-rate, covers approximately 70 percent of telecommunications expenses in Garrett County. The symmetrical speeds allow fast, reliable communication between facilities and to the main Internet connection at the data center.

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Connected entities also saved significantly by switching from traditional telephone lines to VoIP. The Board of Education (BOE) in Garrett County has cut telephone expenses to $9 per month per phone for unlimited calling. The BOE’s facility alone is saving $10,000 per year. DoTCOM is slowly installing VoIP in other school facilities to expand on the savings. We’ve discovered similar savings in a number of places. In Austin, Texas, school officials estimate that they have saved millions by transitioning to the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN) for Internet and telephone services.

Free Wi-Fi Is Expanding

The county is able to use the network to provide backhaul for free Wi-Fi to several public locations, including the County Courthouse and the Airport in Oakland, the Department of Utilities, and all of the County Roads' Garages. DoTCOM provides free Wi-Fi at the Adventure Sports Center International, a nonprofit recreation center in McHenry. There are two parks that are set to receive free Wi-Fi and security camera coverage, courtesy of the fiber network. Watkins wants to expand free Wi-Fi to as many locations in Garrett County as possible as a community service.

Better Business Connections In Garrett?

The county does not routinely offer connectivity to businesses but does provide services to one medical facility simply because it needs speeds that are not available from any private providers. Without high-quality Internet access from the county, the facility in Oakland would not be able to connect its facilities, which need to send data-intensive medical records to other healthcare offices and to each other. The county is “trying not to step on the toes” of the private providers while also bringing affordable, reliable connectivity to CAIs, says Watkins. Nevertheless, they are well positioned if the time comes when more businesses seek out fast, affordable, reliable connectivity from an entity they feel they can trust.

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Next Project - Connecting Residents and Businesses

Garrett County has also started a new project to bring connectivity to some of the areas of the county where residents and businesses have the worst coverage or, in some cases, no Internet access at all. After years of study, they have determined that a fixed wireless solution will work best for them.

With their home-grown experience and proven strategy to cut costs through efficiency, Garrett County can certainly tackle their next challenge - ubiquitous Internet access in the far-west hills of Maryland.

Open Cape Works With Communities for Last Mile - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 215

Cape Cod's Open Cape is the latest of the stimulus-funded middle mile broadband projects to focus on expanding to connect businesses and residents. We talk to Open Cape Executive Director Steve Johnston about the new focus and challenge of expansion in episode 215 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Steve has spent much of his first year as executive director in meetings with people all across the Cape. We talk about how important those meetings are and why Steve made them a priority in the effort to expand Open Cape.

We also talk about the how Open Cape is using Crowd Fiber to allow residents to show their interest in an Open Cape connection. They hope that expanding the network will encourage people to spend more time on the Cape, whether living or vacationing.

The Cape is not just a vacation spot, it has a large number of full time residents that are looking for more economic opportunities and the higher quality of life that comes with full access to modern technology.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 26 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Middle Mile vs Last Mile - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 214

As the next President considers how to improve rural Internet access, the administration will have to decide where to focus policy. Some at NTIA - the National Telecommunications Information Administration, a part of the federal Department of Commerce - have argued for more middle mile investment. NTIA oversaw major investments in middle mile networks after the stimulus package passed in 2009.

To discuss the relevance of middle mile investment against last mile investment, we brought Fletcher Kittredge back, the CEO of GWI in Maine. Fletcher has extensive experience with both middle mile and last mile investments.

We talk about whether more middle mile will actual incent last mile investment and, more importantly, how to build middle mile correctly to get the best bang for the buck. Along those lines, we talk about avoiding cherry-picking problems and one of my favorites, how to ensure that rural investment does not inadvertently promote sprawl.

Read the transcript of this episode 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 Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

OpenCape Institutional User Sees Internet Speed Double

A major institutional customer on the OpenCape fiber optic network in the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts is now enjoying Internet access at double the speed. 

CapeCod.com reports that local CapeNet, the supplier of service over the OpenCape network, has doubled the Internet speed for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) from 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) to 2 Gbps. By switching to CapeNet as its primary provider, WHOI now also has the ability to expand up to 10 Gbps.

Previously, CapeNet provided 100 megabits to WHOI as a secondary provider, but the research and educational organization was interested in dramatically increasing its Internet capacity. In order to increase capacity, WHOI needed to make the switch to CapeNet.

CapeNet, the private provider that operates via the CapeNet fiber infrastructure, offers services across southeastern Massachusetts and to every town on the Cape. In addition to 150 institutional customers, the network connects businesses that handle large data, libraries, colleges, high schools, research facilities, municipal buildings, healthcare clinics, and public safety agencies. It is middle mile infrastructure, which means it links the Internet backbone to organizations and businesses that serve end users.

To become the primary broadband provider for WHOI, CapeNet installed additional equipment in Boston, Providence, and throughout the research campus. “It was actually quite a substantial undertaking in order to expand their capabilities,” said Alan Davis, chief executive officer of CapeNet.  

CapeNet On The Move...To Businesses and Residents?

CapeCod.com also reports that CapeNet is: 

...[C]ontinuing to expand services to educational institutions on the Cape. 

“We hope and expect that by the end of this year, certainly no later than next year, that we will actually be the primary provider of all the high schools on Cape Cod if not the middle schools and elementary schools as well,” said Davis.

The network will also be expanding fiber to 59 cell towers so a major mobile provider can expand coverage for customers in the area.

CapeNet recently announced that it would begin reaching out to residents and businesses in Falmouth, where the network serves 19 municipal facilities. OpenCape will soon host a survey on its website for local residents so the partners can obtain a better perspective on whether or not there is interest in the community. The results of the survey will determine if they move ahead with residential and business connectivity.

OpenCape History 

Started in mid-2013, the OpenCape is a 475-mile fiber-optic network serving more than 100 community anchor institutions in southeastern Massachusetts, the South Coast, and South Shore.  The middle-mile infrastructure was funded with a $32 million grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and about $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet.

Dan Gallagher, senior consultant to OpenCape Corp., and Davis wrote in an OpenCape blog last year: 

 “With the support and backing of the community, CapeNet and OpenCape are aggressively pursuing a broad range of funding sources to complete laterals and last-mile connections that will allow our region to unleash this great resource. Accomplishing this goal will allow OpenCape to fulfill its mission of improving the quality of life for the residents in our community.”

UC2B At A Crossroads, Partner Selling Assets

In late February, private Internet service provider, Countrywide Broadband (CWB), announced that it and Seaport Capital together would acquire assets belonging to iTV-3, Inc. In addition to fiber networks developed in Peoria, Bartonville, and Bloomington, iTV-3 is deeply involved in bringing connectivity to the Urbana-Champaign community. The company leases fiber on the UC2B network, has expanded the network by deploying its own fiber off the UC2B fiber rings, and promised to expand the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network across the community.

In the agreement with iTV-3, the UC2B nonprofit has a right of first refusal to purchase any local iTV-3 assets deployed if iTV-3 is purchased by another company. In short, UC2B has 60 days from the date of the CWB and iTV-3 purchase agreement to decide if they want to purchase the iTV-3 fiber expansions. If the nonprofit decides not to purchase the fiber, it will continue to own the UC2B rings and CWB will own the expansion fiber.

It was only a few weeks ago that we wrote about the upcoming sale of Bristol's BVU Optinet. It is important for communities to recognize that as these networks are built, they are targets for purchase and consolidation. Fiber networks are a hot commodity and local governments may be tempted to plug short term financial problems with a sale that has implications for decades – long after those elected officials have left office. 

They Chose iTV-3

The open access (FTTH) network, one of the few last-mile projects awarded funding during the first round of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), cost $26 million to deploy. The network offered affordable access to residents - as low as $19.99 per month. At first, UC2B operated the network, but the organization later sought a private partner to manage and provide services. In 2014, UC2B chose iTV-3, Inc. as a partner to offer triple-play and to expand the network.

UC2B chose iTV-3 primarily because it was a local ISP; the Springfield company served other Illinois communities. iTV-3 was a subsidiary of Family Video which owns a number of video stores in the U.S. and Canada. For the past several years, the company has invested in the Internet service provider business, including purchasing smaller providers and deploying new fiber networks. The company appeared solid and had the expertise to manage the network. Under the terms of the UC2B partnership, iTV-3 agreed to lease the UC2B fiber to offer services, manage the network so other providers could offer services via the fiber, and continue to expand with its own fiber investments. 

Since the start of the partnership, iTV-3 has expanded in at least one neighborhood and several others reached the qualifying threshold for pre-subscriptions. Before iTV-3 agreed to schedule fiber construction, Urbana-Champaign residents and businesses in a target neighborhood needed to reach at least a 50 percent subscription rate.

The Community Has Another Choice

In a recent Telecompetitor article, CWB President and CEO Grier Raclin said that the company is looking for more companies like iTV-3 to add to its collection:

“We’re looking for broadband [companies],” said Raclin. The company is looking primarily for companies that have deployed fiber-to-the-home or hybrid-fiber coax, he noted. But he added that “we will consider twisted pair if we have the opportunity to do a triple-play and a growth opportunity.”

“We have an opportunity to add value . . . and grow,” said Raclin.

Right now, UC2B is an asset that belongs to, and serves, the people of Urbana-Champaign. CWB appears to be a company looking to add profitable investments to its portfolio, rather than become invested in the community. The UC2B community needs to consider the long term value of controlling the network and what is at stake if CWB takes the helm.

We encourage the community to carefully consider their position within the terms of the agreement with iTV-3. We hope that the Urbana-Champaign community will consider the long term consequences if they decline to purchase the iTV-3 expansion fiber. The situation in Urbana-Champaign highlights one of the risks of public private partnerships. Once those fiber assets change hands to a company with no local stakes, Urbana-Champaign subscribers have lost some leverage; their future connectivity is in the hands of an outsider. 

Listen to episode #160 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from July, 2015, in which Chris interviewed Brandon Bowersox Johnson from UC2B and Levi Dinkla, Vice President and CEO of iTV-3.

North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 188

North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.

This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services.

Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.

Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.

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 25 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."

Local Internet Improvement Districts in New Hampshire - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 179

Local governments in New Hampshire are quite limited in how they can use public financing to invest in fiber optic networks, but Hanover is exploring an approach to create voluntary special assessment districts that would finance open access fiber optic networks. Town Manager Julia Griffin joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode 179 to explain their plans.

Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against municipal networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has certainly limited local authority to ensure high quality Internet access.

But Hanover is one of several communities around the country that is exploring special assessment districts (sometimes called local improvement districts) that would allow residents and local businesses to opt into an assessment that would finance construction and allow them to pay it off over many years. This approach is well suited to Hanover, which has access to the Fast Roads open access network.

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 18 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 Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 

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The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

Video: Next Century Cities' Digital New England Conference

On September 28th, Christopher participated in the Digital New England regional broadband summit in Portland, Maine sponsored by Next Century Cities and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). In the morning, he moderated a panel focusing on regional approaches to improve Internet access, and in the afternoon he moderated a panel that included incumbent providers on their preferences for partnerships.

If you were unable to attend the event or did not see the live stream, Next Century Cities has released a video playlist of the two day long event. Christopher can be found moderating the morning panel in the main room during part three. The full agenda is available online.

Digital New England Community Broadband Summit Webcast Live

If you are not able to attend the Digital New England Community Broadband Summit in Portland, Maine, you are in luck. The conference is being webcast live from NTIA's Digital New England Community Broadband Summit website.

The conference will run until 4 p.m. Eastern today and is a collaboration between NTIA and Next Century Cities. NTIA describes the gathering:

The summit will present best practices and lessons learned from broadband network infrastructure buildouts and digital inclusion programs from Maine and surrounding states, including projects funded by NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and State Broadband Initiative (SBI) grant programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The summit will also explore effective business and partnership models.

You can view the full agenda online [PDF], complete with a list of guest speakers and moderators.