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Lakeland, Florida, Takes Small Steps

This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.

Too Much For Lakeland?

Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.

In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:

“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.

Pilot Won't Fly

One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:

“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.

He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”

While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:

“For most of us there is not a philosophical problem with expanding utilities. This is a utility; we can pretty well justify it ... (and) when you look at the revenue possibility down the road to replace the hospital it makes good governmental sense,” [Mayor Howard] Wiggs said.


But incumbent providers are not obligated to play nice with new competition, Wiggs said, and he worried an operation like Charter Communications could severely drop prices and erode the city’s market edge.

Not A Total Loss

While Commissioners chose not to pursue the municipal network plan, they did support a number of items intended to encourage better connectivity in Lakeland:

  • It will submit a bid for supplying internet access to Polk County schools when its current contract expires with the goal of making money from existing assets while reducing the cost of the School District’s services.
  • To address the “digital divide” between rich and poor, Lakeland will consider expanding its free wireless service, SurfLakeland, into neighborhoods. The service is currently available in municipal buildings and in Munn Park.
  • Wiggs recently made a pitch to other municipal leaders in Polk County to join forces in encouraging broadband expansion throughout the county.
  • The city will continue its “dig once” policy for all infrastructure work — that when roads are closed and crews dispatched for underground utility work, conduit that could be used for fiber optics is put in place.
  • The city’s “dark fiber” network, which provides intra-city connections for companies and organizations with multiple facilities, will be more actively marketed. Currently the program generates about $4 million each year.
  • The city will also look at fees and licensing costs to determine if they are discouraging private investment.

The Lakeland Regional Airport will deploy its own fiber infrastructure and will offer Internet access to tenants. The project had been considered as a business pilot and, according to the article, costs are now going to be covered in part with federal and state grants specifically earmarked for airports.

Citizens Want Action

Gigabit Lakeland, the grassroots organization advocating for a municipal network, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Shane Mahoney, one of the group’s leaders, talked to the Ledger:

A partnership with a private provider has not been his favored outcome, Mahoney said, but his group intends to continue pressuring the city toward better internet infrastructure in the city, particularly for residents who do not have quality access because of price or location.

Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators.

E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation.

An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

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."

Dublin Residents Push for Residential Fiber, City Continues to Benefit

The Columbus, Ohio suburb of Dublin is home to Dublink, a fiber-optic network that serves local businesses, schools, and community anchor institutions. Dublink brought new jobs and research opportunities to the local economy while saving local institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. 

Just recently, Dublin City School District and City of Dublin struck a deal to allow public schools to use the network. Now, residents want Dublink to deliver high-speed access to their homes. 

Residents Want The Benefits, Too

This spring, Dublin residents expressed their discontent with incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) Charter Communications and AT&T at two packed meetings. Doug McCollough, Dublin’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) summarized local sentiments in a memo to the City Council in April. In the memo and in a Columbus Business First article, McCollough downplayed the idea that the city would operate a network itself, but noted a growing impatience in his community:

"We are a city and should not be competing against telecom carriers, (but) the patience for that message is running out. Our residents want broadband service in their home for a reasonable price – now."

Extensive, compelling public discussions on the social network Nextdoor and in an online forum facilitated by resident group Dublin Broadband encouraged city officials to take up the issue at a larger public meeting in April. Community enthusiasm led to the addition of three more meetings in July, August, and September. The next step will be to survey residential Internet needs and to gather information from the Department of Commerce and incumbent ISPs.

Research & Deployment

Dublink started as a public private partnership to lay conduit in 1999. It originally connected 6 city buildings and the business district. Over the past 17 years, the network was crucial to attracting economic development to the region, as we wrote two years ago. A $1.1 billion Amazon data center, a new Costco Wholesale store, and numerous healthcare employers invested in Dublin in part because of its fiber-optic network. 

In 2005, Dublink began to collaborate with Ohio Academic Research Network (OARnet) to create the Central Ohio Research Network (CORN). The effort connects Dublink with over 1,600 miles of fiber-optic cable linking the region’s top academic research institutions. We wrote about the project last December, when Dublink upgraded speeds on its network to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds (100,000 Megabits per second). 

Dublin City Manager Dana McDaniel foresees further economic development success, particularly in the West Innovation District, 

"We're starting to see those anchor tenants come to fruition. It's heavy in the health arena, information technology and R&D, so it's a great start. I would say it's probably only 25 percent built out so we have a lot of capacity out there." 


Expedient, a network and data center operator, is currently forming an agreement with the city to lease fiber access and bring additional revenue to the city. Expedient’s CEO tied their decision directly to Dublink, "Because of the Dublink connection, we think that we will be able to grow our business faster and more successfully in Dublin.” 

Local officials are optimistic that all this tech development will spill into the local economy. McDaniel told Columbus Business First, "You drive into these big office parks and you have not place to get lunch and the services you need."

Development Drives City Savings and Revenues

The city eliminated leased lines to switch to Dublink and saved over $4.8 million during the first 12 years.

This year, the City Council decided to turn extra capacity into revenue; a May resolution makes additional dark fiber available for lease, estimated to deliver more than $5.4 million in revenue to the city in the coming decade. A recent Dublin Villager story highlighted the decision:

“A resolution City Council approved May 9 increases the number of optical fiber pairs the city is authorized to offer for lease from 9 to 15 pairs, generating an estimated $525,000 per year in non-taxable revenue, or a total of more than $5.4 million over 10 years with the inclusion of expired leases.”

I-Net Beginning to Blossom in Greenfield, WI

Greenfield city officials and school administrators recently agreed to cooperatively build a fiber-optic institutional network (I-Net). The Milwaukee suburb of about 37,000 expects to trim thousands of dollars from its annual network bill and bring its students, teachers, and local government up to speed.

Dig Now, Save Now

Just like many communities across the U.S., Greenfield realized that it was paying too much to connect its community anchor institutions (CAIs) to the Internet. In April 2015, Greenfield school district approved a bandwidth upgrade with a private provider that would cost the schools $45,588 annually. Within half a year, they had already hit their new bandwidth limit. In November 2015, they needed to upgrade again to the tune of $119,141 per year. 

With classrooms and public institutions demanding increasingly higher bandwidth, local officials decided to ditch the incumbent providers to build a fast, affordable, reliable network in the coming semester. Their investment will allow them to make long-term budgeting decisions, direct more money toward classroom expenses, and use technology to offer rich educational experiences. 

Construction started in June on the fiber-optic network that will connect Greenfield school district, neighboring Whitnall school district, Alverno College, and Greenfield public safety buildings. With installation slated to finish by summer’s end, local institutions expect immediate savings. 

Financial Terms

The City of Greenfield, Greenfield School District, and Whitnall School District all applied for state trust fund loans through the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands of Wisconsin (BCPL). 

Michael Neitzke, Greenfield’s mayor, expects the town to repay it share - a $700,000 loan from BCPL - within 10 years thanks to annual telecommunications savings. The school districts anticipate even shorter repayment periods. Officials at Greenfield School District expect to pay off their loan within 4 years, according to Superintendent Lisa Elliot.  The School District of Whitnall authorized a $440,000 loan from BCPL with a 5-year repayment term at an interest rate of 2.5 percent. 

More Than Just Money

Greenfield hopes its network will impact the community beyond the balance sheet. In addition to blazing fast download speeds, fiber-optic networks feature faster upload speeds that shorten data transfer times, opening the door to a variety of indirect benefits for public safety and education. Greenfield Now quoted Nietzke, who said: 

“Benefiting most in local government are police and paramedics... Police especially depend heavily on getting data and lots of it. Based on the increasing need of law enforcement, an upgrade of this kind would have been made, anyway.”

The school districts are also excited for new possibilities. Greenfield and Whitnall will consider sharing the costs of virtual classrooms, where students in either district could attend classes via the Internet. Their partnership with the city will allow the school districts to save substantially on telecommunications costs; school officials can direct funds toward educating students, maintaining infrastructure, or other important necessities.

Ottawa, Kansas, and Monticello, Illinois, are two other communities where schools and local government have teamed up to save public dollars while simultaneously obtaining better connectivity. Schools can use federal E-rate funds to pay for the cost of Internet infrastructure investment, reducing the overall cost for deployment. Money saved by lowering telecommunications costs can later be re-invested. When a city strategically locates fiber-optic rings, they can later expand their network to serve other CAIs, businesses, or residents.

Regardless of how far Greenfield eventually takes their network, these first steps will result in significant cost reduction and a valuable publicly owned asset.

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."

Dark Fiber For The Future In Caswell County Schools, NC

Caswell County School Board members recently voted to take a long-term approach to student connectivity in North Carolina.

Ten Years Was A Lifetime Ago

Earlier this month, the issue of Internet access for the schools came before the Board because a lease with the telecommunications company connecting school buildings is about to end. Since the inception of the 10-year agreement, computer and Internet use in schools has skyrocketed; Caswell County Schools now aim to have every child on a computer at school. The district is now served by satellite Internet access to school facilities and in order to supply the speed and reliability they need, the Chief Technology Officer David Useche recommended a fiber-optic network to the Board.

Lease vs. Own

Useche offered two possibilities: 1. lease a lit network, which costs less in the first years of the contract but will not belong to the school district; or 2. pay more for the first five years to have a dark fiber-optic network constructed. The dark fiber network infrastructure will belong to the school district. Caswell County will use E-Rate to help fund the construction of the network, which will result in an overall long-term savings of $35,000. Useche told the Board:

“If we look at the projections for the Lit network, in ten years after E-Rate our cost is going to be $214,255. With the Dark network the cost is $178,729. The difference is a savings of $35,000,” said Useche, who added that the district will use $751,000 in E-rate funds to help build the network. Useche said that the State of North Carolina is using E-rate funds to build networks in some of its rural areas. “If we didn’t have E-Rate funds we could not afford either of these options. We are lucky to have them to provide the services the schools need.”

The Board agreed with Useche’s recommendation to approve the dark fiber option. The agreement will include 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity for less than $100 per month more than 1 Gbps connectivity. “It’s not like we need ten gigabits right away but pretty soon we will need that much bandwidth,” said Useche.

Savings and Connectivity for Allegheny County Pennsylvania Schools

In Pennsylvania, many of Allegheny County’s schools are about to experience new and improved high-speed Internet access. This summer, school districts throughout Allegheny County will get better connectivity and save public dollars with a new Regional Wide Area Network. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Allegheny Intermediate Unit struck a deal with a new contractor to deliver better connectivity for less. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, provides services to 42 schools and five career and technical centers in the county surrounding Pittsburgh.

Paying Less and Getting More

The new network will generate major cost savings for the school districts. Jon Amelio, the Chief Technology Officer for Allegheny Intermediate Unit, estimates that they will pay 40 percent - 70 percent less than they do now. Currently, the school districts are paying $1,500 per month; with the new contract, the same speed and connectivity will only cost $550 per month. Many of the school districts are opting to increase their speeds, some by as much as 10-fold for only $895 per month.

Students and teachers will appreciate the faster speeds next school year. The connectivity affects nearly every level of education in the county from preschool teachers working with smartboards to high school students learning about 3-D printers. The new network will also better facilitate the Chinese language classes where Chinese graduate students teach 178 middle- and high-school students in 15 schools via video-conferencing. (For more information on schools and connectivity, check out the Institutional Networks page.)

How Is This Possible?

The structure of the new network enables these major cost savings. The school districts will buy connectivity in bulk under the new contract. This process consolidates the demand, driving down the price. That means better connectivity for less with the new Regional Wide Area Network; the old Regional Wide Area Network did not have this process.

Since 2008, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit has used an older Regional Wide Area Network for the 42 schools and five career/technical colleges. The high prices from that contractor, however, made the Allegheny Intermediate Unit rebid the contract. The new contractor will build a new and more reliable network, starting on July 1st. 

The Benefits of Ownership

The school districts will get better connectivity thanks to the savings from the new Regional Wide Area Network or as Chief Technology Officer Amelio explained:

 “It’s the beauty of bulk purchasing.”'

School districts that own infrastructure, rather than lease expensive lines from Internet service providers, have the flexibility to engage in this type of cost sharing techniques.

Over time, the cost per Megabit for Internet access has decreased; schools with their own infrastructure can capitalize on the reduction to negotiate better contracts to cut down on telecommunications costs. They have better control over their budgets, control their network, and can plan for the future. When they collaborate, they can get even better rates and use the savings for improved educational opportunities.

Sixth Annual SHLB Conference April 27 - 29 at Crystal City, VA

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) is hosting its sixth annual conference from April 27 - 29 at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, VA (near Reagan National Airport in Washington DC).

From the SHLB website:

Every year SHLB's Annual Conference attracts 200-300 people from across the country to discuss key broadband policy issues that are important to anchor institutions and their communities. This year's sixth Annual Conference will focus on E-rate Compliance, Lifeline Reform, Telehealth, and Fiber Build Out, as well as other policies and funding programs that will impact broadband deployment for anchor institutions and communities.

The conference officially kicks off at 12 p.m. noon on Wednesday, April 27th.

Notable plenary speakers at the conference will include US Senator Angus King (I-Maine) and Valerie Truesdale, the Chief Technology, Personalized Learning & Engagement Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. In addition, representatives from the Broadband Opportunities Council (BOC) will also participate on a lunch panel on the last day of the conference.

Senator King has been a strong proponent of universal broadband access and municipal broadband initiatives. Valerie Truesdale is an advocate for using improved access to broadband and other technologies to transform learning in schools. The Broadband Opportunities Council, established by President Obama, works to understand how the Executive Branch can support communities around the nation seeking to invest in local broadband networks.

The full list of conference speakers includes a link to information about each speaker. The complete conference agenda also provides information about the different sessions and workshops to be held throughout the three day conference.

You can register for the conference online at this link until April 25, 2016. Onsite conference registration will also be available beginning at 12:00pm on Wednesday April 27.

Prices for attending the conference vary depending on your registration type. The cost of registration onsite is an additional $100 for every registration type.

New Report on Digital Inclusion from Sesame Workshop

A recent report by Victoria Rideout and Vikki S. Katz from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop delves into detail on the experiences of lower income families and Internet access. The report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” points to the promises of digital inclusion for educational opportunities, but also to the current inequalities in Internet access. 

The researchers highlight several key findings from the study in an effort to inform policymakers of the root causes, and effects, of these inequalities on lower-income families. They include issues of race (families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected), of access (mobile-only and inconsistent connectivity), and of affordability (despite the existence of discounted programs).

Discounted Programs Not Working

We’ve written several times about the failings of the large corporate providers’ discounted programs for Internet access. Over the past few years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been a prime example. We reported on the Consumerist article that highlighted how the program benefits Comcast more than lower-income families. In 2013, our Lisa Gonzalez shared her own family’s experience with the program. 

Rideout and Katz’s report again show the real impact of these programs’ failures. Only 5% of those surveyed had ever signed up for the programs although many met the eligibility requirements. Even those that did receive the service sometimes found that it could not meet their needs. After all, the program only provides up to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speeds. A parent of a seventh grader in Colorado explained to the researchers (page 11): 

I had (Internet Essentials) because (my children) had assignments that they needed the computer for... I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it.

A Better Solution: Community

The report from Rideout and Katz at the Sesame Workshop found that the largest barrier for Internet access in lower-income households is financial. The researchers detail the many ways that better Internet access would provide better education opportunities for lower-income children, and the survey shows that parents know this too.

So, why haven’t these discounted programs been effective in bridging the digital divide? The programs aren’t readily available. Enrollment is confusing. And, more importantly, people outside the community run these programs - people who don’t know what the community needs. 

Chattanooga’s municipal network offers a better solution. Chattanooga took the best aspects of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and combined them with a deep understanding of community needs. An effective policy for providing affordable Internet access must be rooted in the community.

MN Coop to Rural Schools: Have A Gig, No Extra Charge

Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Communications' is bringing better connectivity to homes and businesses across northern rural Minnesota via fiber. The cooperative is also helping local school districts save precious dollars while obtaining the Internet access kids need for a 21st century education.

The cooperative recently announced it is now serving all schools in the GigaZone, the area served by its fiber network, and every school can upgrade to gigabit Internet services at no extra charge.

From the announcement:

"The GigaZone will provide the school districts Gigabit Internet speeds throughout the school day so educators and students alike can use the Internet faster and more efficiently. This upgrade is being provided at no extra charge so districts can stay within their budget and prepare their students for the future and the new technologies it will bring," said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications IT & Development Manager.

Recent studies reveal that rural schools grapple with high rates for Internet access, often because there is only one provider who takes advantage of their solo position. Paul Bunyan Communications is one of the many telecommunications cooperatives that serve rural regions that are owned by the people they serve. Like municipal networks, cooperatives typically display a concern for the community rather than maximizing profit.

Paul Bunyan is continuing to expand its current GigaZone coverage area. The coop now serves over 14,000 locations in rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, and portions of Bemidji. The goal is to cover the 5,000 square mile service area now served by the cooperative.