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Examining Connectivity Alternatives: Op-Ed In Rochester

When the Rochester Post-Bulletin published Christopher Mitchell’s opinion piece in August, it wasn’t only because he is an expert on municipal networks. Christopher’s interest in all things geeky started in Rochester - he went to Rochester Mayo High School.

A Budding Idea

For the past few years, various elected officials, and member of the community-at-large have expressed dissatisfaction for services offered by incumbent Charter Communications. In addition to poor services, City Council members have faced complaints from constituents about awful customer service. Over the past year, the community began showing that they will not abandon the idea of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The city, home to the world-class Mayo Clinic, is a hub of healthcare discovery. As medical technology becomes more intertwined with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, Rochester’s expensive and lackluster incumbent Internet providers are showing that they just aren’t cutting it.

Local Support And Early Analysis

In June, the Post Bulletin Editorial Board published their support for a review of the options:

We'd encourage the council and Rochester Utilities Board (RPU) board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester's economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city's future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester's businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Many questions and concerns remain, but finding answers is the best way for the city to make sure it is serving the needs of its constituents to the fullest.

RPU staff consulted experts as it investigated options and presented their estimates to the City Council and the RPU Board in July. They concluded the city would need to invest approximately $53 million in capital to build a fiber-optic network. With the cost of bonding, staff estimates the total cost for a citywide municipal fiber-optic network would be $67 million.

Smart Move

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Soon after the city heard RPU staff’s findings, the Post Bulletin published Christopher's piece. He points out that the city makes a smart move in evaluating the options. Businesses and residents are lacking choice and the community’s economic foundation is likely at risk unless connectivity improves:

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

Christopher points out that there are a number of possibilities and that the city is already ahead because they have an electric utility. He reminds them that they need to consider the future of the community and that the greatest peril comes from inertia:

None of these approaches comes without risk — but then, many communities have found that doing nothing is an even greater risk. Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing.

Rochester should continue examining its options and decide on the best step forward for it as a whole for the long term. We all want a solution to meet our needs in the near term, but as RPU demonstrates, smart investments can continue benefiting the community decades upon decades later.

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." 

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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.”

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

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 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 download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Bar Harbor Votes Down Funding For Study...This Time

On June 7th, Bar Harbor residents voted against funding the first $50,000 of a $100,000 engineering study for a fiber network to connect municipal facilities. A contentious 47-57 vote at the annual town meeting erased the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) from the annual budget, postponing progress on potential publicly owned Internet infrastructure. 

Decision Leaves Locals Stranded

The town is still clinging to hopes that it can arrange a new agreement with incumbent provider Charter Communications, who owns the majority of fiber on Mount Desert Island, where the city is located. The franchise agreement, inherited by Charter Communications when it merged with Time Warner Cable, expired in 2014. Negotiations on a new agreement appeared to have stalled when Charter wanted to begin charging the town access to incumbent fiber. In the prior agreement, municipal use of fiber to municipal facilities was a service included without an additional fee.

Bar Harbor officials are finding themselves in the same position as other communities similarly situated. After years of dependence on incumbent infrastructure connecting city buildings as part of franchise agreements, incumbents are now trying to squeeze as much as possible out of that dependence. Time Warner Cable tried the same strategy in Martin County, Florida, but the community invested in its own fiber-optic network and is now saving millions.

Apparently, Bar Harbor's leadership was split over the decision to include the funds for the study in the budget. During the budget process, the Warrant Committee took several close votes on whether or not to include the funding. Ultimately, the entire community decided that they prefer to maintain a balance in their CIP fund.

Mount Desert Islander reported on the June 7th vote

“'A majority of the council thinks it’s prudent to have some money in the account in case things change with our agreement," [Councilor] Stivers said.

Preliminary Study Lighting the Way

A 2015 preliminary study evaluated the possibility of Bar Harbor building a fast, affordable, and reliable Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network of its own. 

“Stakeholders in the Town of Bar Harbor feel that their current Internet capabilities are inadequate to meet changing business demands. There are onerous cost burdens associated with subscribing to the services one of the incumbent carriers for the Town, residents, and businesses alike. Such ongoing costs are significant, and can be avoided with the right broadband investment initially, creating a solution where the Town is not dependent upon a powerful carrier with prohibitive prices.”

The study proposed a two-phase approach, which included beginning with connectivity for anchor institutions and later connecting residents and businesses. It also recommended the engineering study to better estimate costs.  

Clear Skies on the Horizon?

The franchise agreement between the community and Charter Communications is still unresolved but according to Seth Libby of the Warrant Committee, the city is part of a consortium of municipalities in the area that are working collectively to re-negotiate their franchise agreements.

Despite the disappointing vote, optimism persists. When we spoke to a local official over the phone, he was confident that the funding for the engineering study would pass in the coming fiscal year.

Saratoga Springs Launches Smart City Commission

Saratoga Springs, New York (pop. 5,600 28,000), has launched a Smart City Commission, whose mission is to enhance telecommunications and help the city become a leader in high-speed Internet service.

The startup of the Smart City Commission, which held its first meeting in March, comes as Saratoga Springs pursues becoming a model Intelligent Community. City leaders have determined that the best way to acheive Intelligent Community status, is to join Next Century Cities (NCC), and to adopt the organization's six guiding principles:

  1. High-speed Internet is necessary infrastructure.
  2. The Internet is nonpartisan.
  3. Communities must enjoy self-determination.
  4. Broadband is a community-wide endeavor.
  5. Meaningful competition drives progress.
  6. Collaboration benefits all.

The Commission’s members include chief information officers from the city, library, hospital, school district, as well members of the city’s convention and tourism bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and local business community.  

Learning From Other Communities

“It’s something I had been thinking about for about two years,” City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan told us, speaking about the Smart City Commission. A key task of the Commission will be to “fill out the questionnaire to ICF [Intelligent Community Forum] and develop a road map to becoming a Smart City,” she told us. “It seemed the best way to move forward on this project was to get a core group of stakeholders involved from the city.”

Membership in NCC will allow Saratoga Springs access to a network of knowledge from other cities that have the same desire to bring ubiquitous high-quality Internet access to their communities. The Intelligent Community Forum is a worldwide association of cities and regions dedicated to helping communities use information and communications technology to, among other things, address social problems and enhance the economic quality of local life. 

Goal: Gig Speed, Wi-Fi For Now

Currently, Saratoga Springs has a franchise agreement with Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner Cable) with the ISP providing maximum Internet access speeds of 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 10 Mbps up, Madigan said. She described those speeds as “not very fast,” adding, “We have very limited public Wi-Fi. It’s a problem.”

She went on:

“I am looking forward to the road map we develop as a first phase to planning to become smart and intelligent. I would like to become a Gig [1 Gbps] city, but cost is an issue. A good goal, at this point, could be 300 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up."

Road Map Key Item  

Asked if Saratoga Springs is thinking about starting its own municipal network, Madigan responded, “Our road map will provide the city with how to do public Wi-Fi in various locations throughout the city.”

According to the Commission’s mission statement:

Broadband and Internet access at globally competitive speeds are no longer optional luxuries, but have become essential resources for residents, businesses, service providers and government.

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

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 24 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."

Lakeland Considering Its Next Step In Florida

In August 2013, we reported on Lakeland, Florida’s dark fiber network that serves local schools, government facilities, and local businesses. Over the past year or so, community leaders have discussed whether or not to expand the use of Lakeland’s fiber resources.

A 2015 feasibility study suggested several other ways to use Lakeland’s existing 330 miles of fiber infrastructure to enhance connectivity for economic development and residential access. As the city examines its finances and its future in the coming months, city leaders are considering six avenues to meet the community’s needs. The options, some recommended by consultants, vary in type and investment and the City Commission will begin discussing the possibilities as they meet in the upcoming months.

Leaders Consider The Next Move

Lakeland is examining public policies that will encourage better connectivity, such as dig-once, permitting changes, and right-of-way regulations. With smart policies in place, Lakeland can lay the groundwork so they can build off progress made today.

In 2013, Polk Vision, a group of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals, along with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council developed the Polk County Broadband Plan. Another option is using the Plan as a guidepost and aligning Lakeland’s plan to support the goals set in the Polk County Plan. Connecting the schools to a larger network would be part of that plan.

Lakeland, like many other communities wants to give providers operating in the community today the opportunity to work with them to improve services. Another option the city will pursue is reaching out to providers in Lakeland and engaging in discussions to upgrade or expand services to better meet the needs of the community. (We haven't seen much success when communities pursue large incumbents, but smaller local providers are sometimes more willing to work with communities.)

SurfLakeland, the city’s free Wi-Fi service that is available in limited areas downtown, in parks, and at municipal facilities, could be expanded. According to Terry Brigman, Lakeland’s CIO and Director of IT, whatever course city leaders choose, the equipment for the free service is due for an upgrade. SurfLakeland has been available for approximately ten years.

Another possible move will be a pilot project to determine how a larger network might do in Lakeland. Pilot projects are becoming more common as a way to test the waters and can help prove that potential subscribers are willing to switch from traditional providers to a new venture. We’ve reported on a growing number of pilot projects in recent years, including Westfield, Massachusetts; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; and Owensboro, Kentucky.

The City Commission will also consider releasing a Request for Information (RFI) to seek out a partner to develop a plan to improve connectivity in Lakeland with infrastructure deployment. 

A Hard Look At The Numbers

Community leaders in Lakeland reviewed the study and are discussing several recommendations. The consulting firm also suggested using city fiber resources as a basis for a more extensive network and that the city branch out to launch as an open access provider, or a retail services provider to businesses in select areas. Another option is to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services to every property within the city limits or within the Lakeland Electric service territory. The authors of the study estimated an FTTH in Lakeland would cost from $220 - $270 million if it's built out over the Lakeland Electric service area and would pay for itself in six to seven years.

In March, the City’s Chief Financial Officer gave his opinion about a potential FTTH project. In his opinion, the consultant's recommendation is too risky because “margins of error are too thin” based on the study’s authors' predictions of a 40 percent take rate.

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The financing, calculated on 20-year bonds, required price increases of 1.5 percent every year.

He went on to say, however, that he did not think the city should abandon the idea of finding a way to bring better connectivity to Lakeland, but that, “I'm simply saying the model we were presented that involved the city purchasing, managing (and) maintaining a broadband system is not feasible."

Support, Adversity Still Alive

Earlier this month, the Ledger reported that Commissioners discussing the issue said that, if the results of the financial analysis and risk assessment still due from the consultants are favorable, they will consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility. Out of seven Commissioners attending the meeting, five expressed support.

A grassroots citizens' initiative, Gigabit Lakeland, has also sprung up in the community and encourages citizens to sign an online petition. They want community leaders to use of the existing publicly owned fiber to bring more choice to Lakeland. Currently, there is a small amount of Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks cable Internet access (which is now owned by Charter Communications).

While residents have expressed support for taking action, economic development and better business connectivity is on everyone’s mind. In March, the Ledger reported (reprinted at GovTech) on a meeting of the Downtown Lakeland Partnership, a group of business leaders:

Ellen Simms, the co-owner of Two Hens and a Hound, said that for a decade her connection has fizzled out when it rains and she can't get the provider to fix it. 

Kate Lake, who hosted the meeting with [Lakeland CIO Terry] Brigman at her business, My Office & More, said the dedicated fiber optics line she pays for at her shared office for hire "is killing me." 

"I'm paying through the teeth." 

Brigman pointed out at the meeting that the Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area was determined to be the seventh worst served area in the country, according to Polk Vision. "We don't have what we need," he said. "We don't have what we need to compete with our neighbors." 

As expected, the incumbent providers have expressed concern, warned of repercussions, and attended meetings but still chosen not to invest in the infrastructure Lakeland needs. Elected officials in Lakeland appear open minded to discussion but don’t have the patience to be put on an endless waiting list if owning their own network or working with a trusted partner is a possibility. From an October article in the Ledger:

"The demand for data services is growing exponentially and it will grow in our homes and grow in our businesses when we have access to it. That we don't have access to it is the limiting factor," not a lack of demand, [Commissioner Jim Malless] said.

He said the commission owes it to the "incumbent services," Bright House Networks and Verizon, to get their points of view and find out what plans they have for upgrading their services in Lakeland.

"To me, they can provide that service tomorrow. They choose not to, and if it's economics to them, we have to get over the hurdle for the economics for us," Malless said. "I'd really like to hear why you don't provide the service."

 

Meeting the American Cable Association - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 202

The American Cable Association (ACA) represents over 800 small and medium-sized cable companies around the United States, including many municipal cable and fiber-optic networks. This week, we talk with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka about what they do and how small cable companies are vastly different from the big companies like Comcast and Charter.

We spoke after it was clear Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable would be approved, but before this article in Ars Technica effectively missed the point of Matt Polka's objection to the competition requirement in the merger. In our interview, we discuss the larger problem - that the federal government consistently puts its thumb on the scale to benefit the biggest cable companies at the expense of smaller ones. Forcing Charter to compete with Comcast would be a far bigger benefit to communities than having it take over small cable networks.

We wrap up with a discussion about how smaller companies, which includes all municipal networks, are disproportionately impacted by regulations that do not distinguish between the biggest providers (that tend to cause the majority of problems) and the smaller providers (that bear the brunt of regulations designed for reigning in the problems caused by the big carriers).

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

Pulaski, Tennessee: "A Community Investing In Itself" With Better Connectivity

Pulaski, located in the area Tennesseans describe as the southern middle region of the state, has a fiber network other communities covet. When we contacted Wes Kelley, one of the people instrumental in establishing the network, he told us that the community always wanted to be more than "just Mayberry." Rather than settle for the sleepy, quaint, character of the fictional TV town, local leaders in Pulaski chose to invest in fiber infrastructure for businesses and residents.

A Legacy That Lives On

The county seat of Giles County, Pulaski has a long history of municipal utility service. The electric system was founded in 1891, and is the oldest in the state. The city also provides municipal water, sewer, and natural gas service. The electric utility, Pulaski Electric System (PES), serves most of Giles County, which amounts to approximately 15,000 customers. PES receives power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then distributes it throughout the county.

Pulaski is now known for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, PES Energize, but the city's first adventure in providing municipal Internet access began in 1993. The city developed dial-up service and within five years, 1,500 homes were using the service. The city abandoned the dial-up service to offer Wi-Fi but then sold that system to a private company.

Preparing PES

Leaders in Pulaski had their sights on connectivity beyond the limits of Wi-Fi. In 2002, Mayor Dan Speer and Dan Holcomb, the New CEO of PES, began exploring a publicly owned fiber network. Holcomb had previously lead a Michigan utility that offered cable TV and so used his experience to help establish the PES Energize network. AT&T (BellSouth at the time) provided DSL service and Charter offered cable Internet access but neither company performed to the satisfaction of the community. In fact, Pulaski had always suffered through poor quality service from its incumbents.

When Holcomb arrived, the community engaged a consultant for a feasibility study to examine in detail the idea of a publicly owned fiber network; Holcomb, Speer, and the rest of the city's leadership were not confident about the results. Before the community moved forward, Holcomb felt it was important they carry out a customer survey and a second feasibility study. In the spring of 2003, the organization undertook a survey and used the results to ready the utility to step into its approaching role as a municipal network utility.

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Ready For The Next Step

Two years later, city and utility leadership felt that they were ready and completed a second feasibility study. This time, the results suggested a better outcome if Pulaski decided to invest in a publicly owned fiber network. In the spring of 2005, Pulaski developed a business plan that was approved in March by Tennessee's State Comptroller, as required by state law. In May, the city council voted to issue $8.5 million in General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance FTTH deployment and a data center.

Kelley had worked on a similar project in Hillsdale, Michigan, and even though Holcomb had asked him to work on the Pulaski project, Kelley was reluctant. Hillsdale had not pursued a network and Kelley did not want another disappointment. Once Pulaski's utility board and city council backed the plan, he knew the project had the support to move forward. Kelley accepted a position as Chief Marketing Officer for the utility. (Kelley talks more about his experience in Pulaski, Hillsdale, and his current role in Columbia, Tennessee, in episode 189 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Check it out to learn more.)

GO bonds are not one of the three most used types of financing for municipal networks but Kelley explained why they worked well for Pulaski. When a community chooses to fund any project with GO bonds, investors have an added measure of safety because the project and the loan are backed by the full faith and credit of the community. In other words, the issuing jurisdiction can use its taxing authority to pay back the debt, if necessary. As a result, the municipality, county, or other government entity issuing the bonds obtain very low interest rates. GO bonds require that the project developed be owned by the community and funds are typically used for projects that will be used by the entire community.

People Grow The Asset

Construction started in 2006, with fiber following the path of the existing power lines - when the lines were aerial, the fiber was installed on poles and when lines went underground, the new network followed suit. PES took the same approach with street lines and drops to homes. Line construction was completed in September 2006; the utility finished its Network Operations Center in November, and began testing right away. 

PES Energize began offering residential triple-play of cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet services in January 2007 but its formal launch was not until the spring of 2007. When the network launched, it offered services at download speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 10 Mbps, and 20 Mbps. Since then, speeds have increased. High-speed Internet access, video, and telephone are available in a variety of bundles or subscribers can purchase stand-alone Internet access for $35.95 (25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload), $75.95 (50 Mbps download / 7 Mbps upload), or $100.00 (100 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload) per month.

By the time Wes Kelley left for his new position as Executive Director of Columbia Power and Water in 2012, PES Energize had achieved a 45 percent take rate. According to Mike Hollis, in charge of sales for PES Energize, the utility expands the network incrementally every year. By the end of January 2016, the network passed 5,609 homes and businesses. The utility's take rate is just under 49 percent in total with 2,729 of those properties passed subscribing to PES Energize.

According to Hollis, customers in rural areas are speeding up the expansions by footing the bill themselves. In PES' electric service area beyond the current network footprint, residents and business owners have approached the utility to ask for an estimate on the cost of expansion to their neighborhood. PES provides a figure for materials and pole attachment costs. Increasingly, these small pockets of rural neighborhoods, with nothing but dial-up or satellite, will chip in to pay for the construction. The neighborhood group cuts a check and the utility expands the network to that area.

Hollis noted that a local realtor is organizing the most recent example of a would-be subscriber funded expansion. He can't sell houses in his neighborhood where there is no high quality Internet access; homebuyers don't want houses with dial-up or satellite. He and his neighbors see the move as a necessary investment so he is leading the effort to obtain contributions from people in the neighborhood to pay for the fiber expansion.

Businesses In Mind

When PES launched, it also offered dark fiber leasing for organizations that wished to manage their own data needs. Most businesses in Pulaski purchase lit services and/or use the utility's data center. The facility housed a colocation facility, hosting services, and offsite data storage and was designed to withstand an F5 tornado.

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In 2011, Speers, who had transitioned from Mayor to Executive Director of the Pualski-Giles County Economic Development Council, discussed how the network had improved functionality for local businesses in an interview with Craig Settles. Whether a local printer sending artwork to Los Angeles or a graphic artist sending catalogue material to Canada, Pulaski businesses heaved a sigh of relief when they tapped into PES Energize. Businesses today overwhelmingly choose PES Energize - 82 percent of those passed subscribe.

From the interview:

"The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, then that’s gravy.

During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have."

Looking At The Long Term

Pulaski has not experienced significant population growth since investing in PES Energize, but it has managed to avoid decline, a problem gripping similarly sized communities in the region. Tullahoma is a little over an hour away, Columbia is less than 45 minutes north; both communities offer potential employers municipal fiber connectivity. Pulaski made the investment first and can still compete for economic development opportunities in a peaceful setting.

When new businesses look for a location to open a facility where high-speed connectivity is a must, and search for a "Mayberry" to attract a quality workforce, Pulaski is on the short list because of its municipal fiber network.

Wes Kelley recognizes the long-term value of Pulaski's decision to create Internet network infrastructure. When we spoke with him for this article he reinforced what local officials and their constituents all over tell us - that the people of Pulaski knew the best course for themselves:

"It's a community investing in itself. Pulaski spent $8.5 million. They could have spent $8.5 million building a new rec center and a new pool but they didn't. They decided to put it in the air and in the ground to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years. I think that's a powerful decision but it is a local decision…local control is critically important."

Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”