On November 29, 2010, MPR published our commentary about community broadband. The Twin Cities has slower and more expensive broadband Internet than the nearby town of Monticello. The Twin Cities metro area has a population of 2.8 million and the highest density of people and businesses in the state. So why is our broadband Internet slower and more expensive than that enjoyed by Monticello, population 12,000? Several years ago, the city of Monticello (45 miles northwest of Minneapolis) recognized the increasing importance of reliable, high speed, low cost broadband. After the incumbent telephone and cable companies declined to build the network city leaders had in mind, the community decided to build one itself. Now, FiberNet Monticello offers some of the best broadband packages available in the country, while the Twin Cities is lagging. A new analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance compares the available broadband speeds in Monticello to those available in the Twin Cities metro. In the metro, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between DSL from the incumbent telephone company (Qwest) and cable broadband from the incumbent cable company (Comcast). Monticello's offerings are faster at every price point, but Comcast appears to offer comparable downstream speeds in the highest tier of service. This apparent equivalence, however, is like comparing dirt roads with interstates. Both are roads that allow you to travel from point A to B, but they have fundamentally different characteristics in carrying capacity and reliability. For a variety of reasons, DSL and cable almost always fall short (and often, well short) of the advertised "up to" speeds, whereas full fiber networks regularly achieve the speeds they promise. In the metro, cable offers most residents the fastest option for broadband, but only one choice of provider. The Monticello network not only created a new choice for its residents, it induced the incumbent telephone company to greatly upgrade its network to remain competitive. Now, Monticello residents can choose between two extremely fast broadband providers, as well as a cable internet connection. The community-owned network may have only been the third broadband option, but it fundamentally changed the market. Prior to Monticello's investment, residents and small businesses had access only to asymmetrical broadband...Read more
Two weeks ago, we released an analysis showing that the private broadband providers in the Twin Cities of Minnesota could not keep up with the small, community fiber network in nearby Monticello.
Minnesota Public Radio covered it with a brief post and Ann Treacy at Blandin on Broadband also wrote about it, adding a key observation after comparing its findings to that of a recent Small Business Administration report showing that rural businesses pay more for broadband in general.
The quick answer is that it appears as if generally rural access is more expensive – but that doesn’t need to be the case – as demonstrated by Monticello. Communities who are interested in pursuing municipally-directed network might make talking to Monticello one of their first steps. Monticello has been very generous with information on their strategy and deployment.
Today, we at MuniNetworks.org have released the first of a series of regional broadband comparisons examining the benefits of community networks. We decided to start with the Minneapolis / St Paul area, where we live and work. Read the Analysis [pdf]
Read the Press Release Our analysis, "Twin Cities Broadband No Match For Community Network," compares the available broadband plans in Minneapolis and St. Paul to small town Monticello, located 45 miles NW of Minneapolis. Monticello, as we have frequently discussed, has built a publicly owned FTTH network (which then pushed its telco incumbent to invest in much faster connections as well). Despite Comcast's much touted DOCSIS 3 upgrades and Qwest's "Heavy Duty" DSL, neither comes close to the value of Monticello's services. These companies have continued to use last-generation DSL and cable technologies with significant downfalls, including much slower upstream speeds than downstream -- a limitation particularly damaging to small businesses and people attempting to work from home. Qwest advertises "fiber-optic fast" but its speeds come nowhere near Monticello's actual fiber-optic network. Further, Qwest's actual speeds are often far below their claims due to limitations with DSL technologies. Comcast offers faster speeds than Qwest, even advertising a 50 Mbps downstream speed that appears to rival Monticello's until you consider the Comcast cable architecture rarely delivers promised speeds because entire neighborhoods have to share bandwidth. Both providers struggle to deliver fast upstream speeds, whereas Monticello's network services all include upstream speeds just as fast as the downstream speeds. When it comes to prices, Monticello's are lower, despite the faster speeds they offer. Minneapolis residents have access to a low-cost Wi-Fi network, but in that case, the low cost reflects the slower available speeds and significantly lower reliability. Our analysis also includes Clear, a new Wi-Max provider, to discredit any claims that 4G wireless will somehow change the fundamental dynamic at work in the Twin Cities: Comcast and Qwest are content to deliver 2nd rate speeds at inflated prices. Wireless provider have...
The 2011 Smart21 ... highlights communities from 12 nations and includes 7 that appeared on last year’s list. Two communities, Issy-les-Moulineaux and Northeast Ohio, returned to the list after a 1-2 year absence. There were two Chinese, one Indian and one Australian communities on the list, as well as six from the USA, four from Canada and one each from the UK, France, Hungary and Brazil.
As usual, the list of US Communities that made the list is dominated by communities that have taken greater responsibility for their broadband infrastructure. Chattanooga was on the list (how could it not be?) with its 1Gbps community fiber network that we have covered.
Dakota County, Minnesota, is on the list and was a pioneer in county-owned fiber and conduit. For some reason, ICF is under the mistaken impression that the county has been well served by commercial providers… as my parents live in the County as well as a number of friends, I strongly disagree.
Danville, Virginia, has built an open access fiber network for local businesses and plans to expand it to residents (our Danville coverage).
[T]he city-owned electric utility launched the nDanville open-access fiber network to bring world-class connectivity to business and government. Danville (a 2010 Smart21) developed the fiber infrastructure – now 125 miles in length – while leaving it to private-sector providers to deliver services. With all government and school facilities plus 150 businesses on the network, it is now financially self-sustaining. The city partnered with county government to develop a business incubator and with Virginia Tech to build a new research institute.
Dublin, Ohio, has done quite a bit of public investment for their network infrastructure needs:
A strategic planning exercise led Dublin to install underground conduits to encourage fiber-optic deployment. This became DubLink, a public-private fiber network for business, government and schools, which spurred aggressive roll-out of e-...
Southwest Review News covered discussions to build a publicly owned fiber I-Net in West St. Paul (a city located, oddly enough, due south of Saint Paul, MN). The estimated cost is $143,000 and will be undertaken in partnership with Dakota County.
Current I-Net services come from Comcast, which recently tried to grossly overcharge Palo Alto for such services.
They are contemplating offering connections to the private sector as well as public institutions:
The infrastructure would put the city in the position of providing connectivity as it would any other utility. Businesses could pay to install connecting lines on their property to the city's fiber, similiar to how sewer and water systems operate.
As I was catching up on some of the good broadband stimulus awards, I came across this Sun Patriot newspaper article about Carver County's award. Carver County, perhaps having learned from its neighbor Scott County (which built a great FTTH network quite economically), will soon operate a broadband network far superior to the expensive leased T1 lines it currently uses. Carver County will receive almost $6 million from the award,
The county has agreed to provide $1.5 million, the required 20 percent match of the total project budget of $7.5 million. The county will use $400,000 in cash funds allocated from its Information Technology operating capital budget for the project. The remaining $1.1 million will come from a bond sale. The county’s recent upgrade to AAA bond rating means it will obtain the lowest possible interest rate on the 15-year bonds, according to a Carver County news release.
The Carver County Open Fiber Initiative (CCOFI) network will connect 86 anchor institutions (including 28 schools) in 55 locations and will not provide services directly to residential or business customers. Instead, the network will offer wholesale access to private providers, in hopes that they will improve broadband access in most areas of the county. The County will own the network; Jaguar Communications has partnered with the county to build and maintain the backbone. This network will allow the County to stop grossly overpaying some $230,000 a year for T1 lines delivering too little capacity for their needs. Over time, ownership of the network will allow them to pay less over time (with technological innovation lowering prices) for broadband rather than paying more over time as occurs with those relying on leased T1s. We continue to question any community that relies on leased copper rather the building their own fiber networks for essential muni functions.
I just spoke with Danna MacKenzie of Cook County and Gary Fields of National Public Broadband (working with Lake County) to find out just how excited they are about yesterday's announcement of broadband stimulus awards. Both Lake and County (separate projects) have been funded to build fiber-to-the-home networks to everyone on the power grid in the region.
They are pretty excited.
In a few years, these North Shore Communities will likely have better broadband options than the metro region of Minneapolis and Saint Paul -- a far cry from the beginning of this year when a single fiber cut stranded the whole north shore.
Bob Kelleher at Minnesota Public Radio covered the awards:
Combined, they will connect 37,000 residents, 1,000 businesses and 98 institutions such as hospitals and schools.
Cook County actually has a double whammy - they already stood to benefit from the North East Service Cooperative, which is building high capacity fiber-optic lines through the North Shore to offer middle-mile backhaul and connect local government facilities and schools.
As of yesterday, they will also get a fiber-to-the-home network from the Arrowhead Electric Cooperative. Cook, currently served in part by Qwest, has little access to true broadband -- some 37% have access to anemic DSL connections and the rest are stuck with dial-up.
Details of the award from Kelleher at MPR:
Joe Buttweiler, who directs membership services with the Lutsen-based Arrowhead Electric Cooperative, said 70 percent of the federal award is a grant and the remainder a loan. He said the cooperative will add another $600,000 for capital.
Arrowhead Electric Cooperative proposes to build and operate a fiber optic network to the residential and commercial...
Last night, I drove down to Winthrop (Sibley County) and then Fairfax (Renville County) to get a better sense of their discussions around next-generation broadband networks (originally covered here).
Throughout this week, they are having public meetings to discuss the potential project though the feasibility study is not yet completed. Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting, author of the feasibility study, is in town talking with folks about potential approaches. However, he made it clear that there is no guarantee they will find a business plan that can work to cover all of Sibley County and the area around Fairfax. Stay current on their project from the Sibley & Renville County Fiber site.
Winthrop's City Administrator, Mark Erickson, is committed to serving the farms though. There is little doubt that the project could succeed financially by serving only the towns, which harbor some 80% of the population. But Erickson recognizes that the towns depend on the farmers and that everyone will benefit more from the network if it is universally available.
Many of the people in towns already have access to some basic broadband - either a slow DSL (in some cases so slow even the old super slow FCC broadband definition does not cover it) or a last-generation cable network from Mediacom. The cable television comes out of Dubuque though, so it isn't exactly local.
The project was originally conceived to cover Sibley County. However, a high school in nearby Fairfax has decided to use iPads [pdf] to revamp its curriculum and it would be a travesty to have such great broadband available across the county border when so many students at GFW have iPads but little access to true broadband.
Most of the area schools have continued to do what they can with basic T.1 lines - too little broadband (at too high a cost!) to really use any modern educational applications. And the mandated state-wide testing is a nightmare across these connections. The new network will bring proper broadband connections at affordable rates.
Update: You can watch a recording of the event here.
Although network neutrality can be easily distracted by partisanship, perhaps it is better viewed through the context of scale and long-term impact. Economically, for example, massive media conglomerates like Fox News, ABC and Disney (who can afford to pay ISPs to favor their content channels) could obtain crucial advantages over new and innovative startup ventures that lack both the cash and clout necessary to strike deals with ISPs.
Be sure to attend the FCC Hearing if you are able.
Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.
If you can, come on out to influence public policy. The future of the Internet is indeed at stake - with massive corporations spending millions in a power grab for the future of the Internet. Take a few hours to show up and tell the FCC we want the Internet to be open to everyone. We'll be there to tell the FCC to ensure all communities have the right to build the network they need. Thursday, August 19 from 6-9PM at South High School. South High School 3131 19th Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55407 More Information here