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Virginia's Roanoke Valley Opens Fiber Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 221

Having few options for high-quality telecommunications service, Virginia's Roanoke Valley formed a broadband authority and is building an open access fiber-optic network with different options for ISPs to plug-in.

In addition to being our guest on Community Broadband Bits episode 221, Frank Smith is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority CEO and President. We discuss their various options for ISPs to use their infrastructure and the various services their network is providing, including access to conduit and dark fiber leases. We also discuss why they formed a state authority to build their carrier-grade network.

Though they have had some pushback from incumbents - something Frank seems unphased by in calling the Authority "the new kid on the block" - they have built local support by building relationships with local organizations like Blue Ridge PBS.

Read all of our Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority coverage here.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

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

This show is 29 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 mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Connectivity's Community Impact: Looking At The Numbers

People rave about next-generation connectivity’s possibilities in rural economies, but what does that mean for locals? A recent survey quantified the actual impact of a reliable high-speed Internet connection in an underserved area.

Central Minnesota telephone cooperative, Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC), released the results of an impact survey on their newest fiber Internet service customers. CTC had extended their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to an underserved area south of Brainerd, with funding from a 2015 state broadband grant.

A Positive for Small Businesses and Farms

The survey of the CTC customers in the grant footprint highlighted the importance of connectivity for the community. Forty percent reported that they could not live in a home without a reliable high-speed connection. At the same time, fifty-six percent of the CTC customers currently use their home Internet connection for work purposes.

The new connectivity had a positive impact on small businesses and farms. More than twenty percent of the CTC customers maintain a home-based business or farm, and thirty-six percent of them reported that Internet service reduced their overall operating costs. Meanwhile, nine percent of all the CTC customers surveyed stated that they plan to start a home-based business in the next few years.

Reaching Goals

These results are especially refreshing for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program. CTC received more than $750,000 from the program in 2015 to improve connectivity for telecommuting and home-based businesses in the area. 

The previously underserved area sits south of Brainerd and extends to Fort Ripley. To encourage survey responses, CTC offered the chance to win an iPad and sent reminder postcards and emails to their customers. Twenty-eight percent of CTC’s customer base in that area took the survey either online or over the phone

The Co-op Perspective

Blandin on Broadband recently published videos from a co-op panel at the 2016 Minnesota Broadband Conference. In this short video from the conference, CTC representative Kristi Westbrock discusses the survey and the role of rural co-ops in expanding access to high-quality Internet service. 

"We Just Can't Go Back In Time": Pinetops Calls For Repeal Of State Law

In a September 22nd press release, the community of Pinetops, North Carolina, called out their Governor as they lose access to high-quality Internet access. Read the full statement here:

A state law is forcing the termination of Gigabit Internet service to the small rural town of Pinetops, NC. Last week, members of the Wilson, NC City Council expressed their deep regrets as they voted to approve the city attorney’s recommendation to disconnect Wilson Greenlight services in Pinetops under the North Carolina law commonly known as H129 (S.L. 2011-84).

Wilson was able to bring fiber-to-the-home Gigabit service to our town in April 2016, after the FCC preempted H129 on the grounds that it is anti-competitive and creates barriers to the deployment of advanced telecommunications capacity. Under Governor Pat McCrory, North Carolina challenged that ruling in May, 2015 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and won a reversal last August.

Members of the Pinetops community are particularly distressed because the Gigabit service Wilson was delivering enabled Pinetops to compete with urban areas of North Carolina that get such Gigabit services from Google Fiber, AT&T, and Frontier. In Pinetops, in contrast, other sources of Internet service don’t meet the federal definition of broadband and are insufficient to support small business, home-based telework needs, and homework for students. The Gigabit network enabled the Town to begin developing new economic development plans to attract knowledge workers from nearby Greenville and Rocky Mount. That strategy is now impossible in light of the imminent disconnection of Gigabit services.

Town Commissioner Suzanne Coker-Craig operates a small screen printing business that depends on Wilson Greenlight’s hyper-fast upload speeds.  Commissioner Coker-Craig, with her colleagues in Pinetops government, passed a resolution in early September detailing the devastating economic impact this disconnection will have on their rural community. “H129 is now only hurting North Carolina’s rural communities.” the Commissioner stated. “Our urban areas are getting their Gigabit from the likes of Google. This is not a positive move forward for Eastern North Carolina in any fashion and we must lay the blame and the resolution at the feet of our Governor and state legislators” who are responsible for the anti-Gigabit law.

Pinetops Mayor Burress met last week with Governor McCrory’s staff, and handed them the Town’s letter and a Town resolution asking for repeal of the law that is forcing the Wilson City Council to cease service to Pinetops.  

Commissioner Coker-Craig reported that she has set up a Facebook page ​called “NC Small Towns Need Internet Access,” that directs residents on how to call their legislators and candidates who are running against them. “We are holding the Governor and our state legislature responsible for keeping this law in place, by challenging the FCC and knowing this would be the effect of a win. This law is not about protecting taxpayers, it’s about preventing competitive choice, and now it’s only hurting our rural areas where those monopoly companies could care less about bringing us 21st Century Internet.”

“We just can’t go back in time,” said Coker-Craig. “That does not represent sound social or economic policy,” the Mayor’s letter states.

​The Wilson Times reports that the Town's fiber network will be disconnected by Halloween.​

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.

Cool & Connected in "Little Gig City"

Few communities in Tennessee have next-generation, high-speed connectivity, but the city of Erwin built its own network despite Tennessee’s restrictions. Now through a collaboration of federal and regional agencies, this “Little Gig City” will get assistance showing off their fiber network.

The planning assistance program, called Cool & Connected, will provide direct assistance to Erwin to develop a marketing plan for the fiber network. Cool & Connected looks to promote the Appalachian communities by using connectivity to revitalize small-town neighborhoods and encourage vibrant main streets with economic development.

Federal and Regional Collaboration

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy explained the program in The Chattanoogan

“Cool & Connected will help create vibrant, thriving places to live, work, and play. We’re excited to be working with these local leaders and use broadband service as a creative strategy to improve the environment and public health in Appalachian communities.”  

Three governmental agencies have brought together the Cool & Connected program to provide planning assistance to ten chosen communities in six states near the Appalachian Mountains. Agencies partnering on the initiative are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services, and the Appalachian Regional Commission through the Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative.

The “Little Gig City” That Could

Although Erwin is a small community of 6,000 people, it expertly navigated Tennessee’s restrictive municipal networks law. The city built the network incrementally starting in 2014. By leasing out Erwin's excess electrical capacity, officials have been able to build each section without taking on any new debt. The network started serving customers in early 2015.

The scenic community is right on the eastern edge of the state, nestled into the Appalachian Mountains. It may not be the first place that comes to mind for high-speed connectivity, but the Cool & Connected program will encourage young professionals, investors, and visitors to recognize the potential of the "Little Gig City." 

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at HarlanNet.com.

From Ghost Towns to Fiber Towns, A Texas Cooperative Looks to the Future

Amid Ghost Towns in northern Texas, a local telephone cooperative looks to bring next-generation technology to rural communities. In August 2015, Brazos Communications, based out of Olney, Texas, announced its plans to build a fiber network throughout its sparsely populated service area.

A year later, in August 2016, the project is well underway. Brazos Communications has completed construction in two of the more populous towns (Archer City and Olney) and has begun installing fiber in the community of Newcastle

The Fiber Project

Brazos Communications keeps locals apprised of the details of the project through their blog on BrazosNet.com and their social media accounts. The telephone cooperative’s service area covers many small communities, the largest of which is Olney with about 3,000 people. 

Previously, the communities only had access to the slow DSL network through Brazos Communications' old network. Last year, the cooperative realized it was time for a forward-looking change. They began to replace the DSL with a new fiber network to offer better, more reliable high-speed services.

And this summer, Brazos Communications teamed up with ice cream truck Pop’s Homemade Ice Cream to celebrate the successful completion of construction in Archer City. As Archer County News reported, residents could learn about the new fiber plans while eating delicious, cool ice cream. Brazos offers symmetric service (the same upload and download speed) ranging from 10 Mbps for $59.95 to 100 Mbps for $199.95. 

Cooperative Connectivity

This connectivity could bring new life to this region that has been losing population ever since the end of the early 20th century oil boom. The communities of Elbert and Jermyn combined have a population of less than 100 people. Meanwhile, nearby Orth, Texas, never recovered and is now home to only a cemetery. Improved Internet access could play an integral role in supporting these small rural towns so they can avoid the fate of Orth.

Across the U.S., rural cooperatives have started building fiber networks to improve their communities. Some are electric cooperatives such as Co-Mo Coop in Missouri, while others are telephone cooperatives like Paul Bunyan Communications in Minnesota. Co-ops allow those obtaining services to also be owners, as in the case of Greater Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative, which focuses specifically on bringing members better connectivity. Cooperatives are bringing next-generation technology to their members and building a brighter fiber future.

Bel Air, Maryland, Latest To Save With HMAN

Time to check in at Harford County, Maryland. When we last reported on the Harford Metro Area Network (HMAN) in July 2014, it had only been lit for a few months. Now, more than 100 public facilities are connected to the network and more are expected; the latest will be Bel Air, Maryland.

Saving With County Connections For VoIP

A recent GovTech article reported that the Board of Town Commissioners voted 4-0 to invest approximately $25,000 in a new VoIP system that will use HMAN for telephone service. The new system will serve 65 new phones and will include the software for the new system. Apparently, Bel Air sought cost estimates to replace their old traditional system with VoIP with a private provider and the estimates were more than $65,000 beyond what the city had budgeted for the project.

We often point to significant public savings when local government uses publicly owned infrastructure for Internet access, but switching from traditional phone service to VoIP via a muni can reduce communications costs even more. In places such as schools, government offices, and other administrative facilities where there are multiple lines, the budget for telephone service can be astronomical. VoIP eliminates leased lines and, because a fiber-optic network like HMAN is designed with redundancy in mind, users can expect reliable connections.

In addition to saving substantially, Bel Air’s new system will be compatible with the systems used by Harford County Government and the Department of Emergency Services.

HMAN connects schools, public safety facilities, libraries, government offices, and other public facilities in the northeast Maryland county. The network is 160 miles and four main rings with laterals off those rings. The network cost approximately $13.8 million, funded with general obligation bonds from the county’s capital improvement budget.

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.

And the Award for Community Broadband Network of the Year Goes to-- Ammon, Idaho!

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recognized Ammon, Idaho’s promise at the 2016 Community Broadband Awards. NATOA named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year

Innovative Ideas in Idaho

It's a great recognition for the innovative little city in Idaho. They have been incrementally building an open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for years. In 2015, they won an award for designing an ultra high-speed application to use the network to coordinate responses to school shootings. And earlier this year, they approved an ingenious funding method: a Local Improvement District (LID). Residents will have the choice of opting into the costs and benefits of the fiber project or opting out completely. 

A New Model

It's all about people's choice; Ammon’s open access model itself empowers community members. Instead of making frustrating phone calls with large corporations, residents can change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal. The infrastructure remains the same, and the providers focus on offering the best customer service. Ammon’s open access model is the virtual end of cable monopolies.

For more details, listen to Ammon’s Technology Director Bruce Patterson explain the project in Community Broadband Bits Podcast episodes 86, 173, and 207. For even more information, see our in-depth coverage on Ammon.