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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.

Virginia Beach Growing Municipal Network For Savings, Development

Virginia Beach has launched a $4.1 million capital improvement project to extend the city’s high-speed Internet network to all municipal buildings. The network will also offer connection spots on the system for colleges, businesses, and neighboring cities, according to the Virginian Pilot.

The city (pop. 448,479) plans to more than double the reach of its municipal network, adding 73 more sites, including more police stations, fire stations, and libraries. Project work is currently underway and is expected to finish in the next year to 18 months. In addition to extending the municipal network, the project will include buying new networking equipment. The city is using money from its capital fund to pay for the project.

Once the project is completed, Virginia Beach will become the first community in the South Hampton Roads region of Virginia with its own Internet network linking all of its government buildings, the Virginian Pilot reported

Growing City Internet Needs

Virginia Beach started its municipal Internet network in 2002 with the local public schools. Since then, the city has invested a total $27 million to install about 225 linear miles of fiber-optic cable, linking all the public schools along with  “connecting many government buildings, including police stations, fire stations, libraries, recreation centers, and Human Services facilities,” according to a city news release.  

Today, Virginia Beach’s burgeoning Internet needs are fueling its municipal network expansion. The network helps maintain traffic lights, facilitates video conferencing, and provides infrastructure for email. A city spokesperson told us that 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service is available to most of the sites on Virginia Beach’s municipal network. 

Network Yields Savings

Once Virginia Beach’s municipal Internet network is fully implemented, the city will save about $500,000 annually in Internet access fees, Matt Arvay, Virginia Beach’s chief information officer, told the Virginian Pilot. For many years, Virginia Beach has paid to lease lines from Cox Communications for buildings not on its network. Without the need to lease those lines, the city can better control and predict their telecommunications costs.

Boosting The City’s Economic Development 

City officials see expanding their municipal network also as a strong enticement to retain and attract economic development, including biomedical companies and other new high-tech businesses.

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That includes establishing “connectivity opportunities for Old Dominion and Norfolk State universities and Tidewater Community College,” Mayor William D. Sessoms Jr. said recently in his 2016 State of the City address.   

The mayor and other city officials also envision their expanded municipal network will provide neighboring cities the opportunity to connect to Virginia Beach’s network for their own municipal broadband. 

In his State of the City address, Sessoms contended:

 “Virginia Beach is on the verge of becoming the East Coast’s fiber transmission hub, facilitating ultra-high-speed broadband communications across the ocean. Picture this….  Lines of fiber running beneath the Atlantic Ocean — from Europe and Brazil to Dam Neck Road, and on to fiber transmission facilities at the Corporate Landing Business Park….With the expansion of broadband, we are on the cusp of incredible economic growth leading to innovations and breakthroughs in medicine, business and technology.”  

Besides addressing its growing municipal needs, the city of Virginia Beach anticipates having enough fiber available to lease fiber to private businesses. If that occurs, one potential beneficiary could be the developers of a proposed biomedical park on 155 acres in Princess Anne Commons, according to Warren Harris, the city’s director of Economic Development,in the Virginian Pilot news story.

In April, the Virginia Beach City Council approved transferring that 155 acre parcel in Princess Anne Commons to the city Development Authority to create a biomedical-related business park. In an earlier news release, the city said, “Expanding ultra-high-speed Internet to the park is a high priority.”

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.

Solon Set to Save in Ohio: Big Plans for I-Net

Solon, located in Ohio's northeast corner, is looking to save approximately $65,280 per year with a publicly owned fiber institutional network (I-Net). At the January 19 city council, an ordinance authorizing the Director of Finance to request bids for the project passed unanimously

Cleveland.com recently reported that the city council is considering ditching its contract with Time Warner Cable as the city moves forward with a traffic signal project. The project would require streets to be excavated all over the community, a perfect time to install fiber connecting 8 municipal facilities. The publicly-owned network will connect buildings such as the Solon Senior Center, the Solon Community Center, and three city fire stations. The traffic signal project will cost $5 million and is funded in a large part by a combination of state and federal grants with the city contributing approximately twenty percent of the total cost.

The city will also pay for the I-Net project, an additional $160,000 but will recoup its investment in less than 3 years through savings on telecommunications costs. The city has paid Time Warner Cable to connect the municipal facilities via fiber and provide Internet access since 1990. Solon currently pays $5,440 per month. 

The city's water reclamation plant will not be connected to the new I-Net and will still use the incumbent because, due to its location, extending to the plant would cost another $100,000. The city will continue to pay Time Warner Cable $500 per month to connect the plant.

Work on the project could begin this spring.

Upper Arlington, Ohio Forges Ahead with Public Partners on City-wide Fiber-Optic Network

The City Council of Upper Arlington, Ohio on Oct. 26 approved several contracts that will enable the community to build a municipal fiber-optic network to key anchor institutions for an estimated $2.5 million.

Upper Arlington’s project will provide high-speed Internet service for the city’s buildings, the Public Library, Upper Arlington city schools, and most city parks according to a news report from the Upper Arlington News. The 30-mile fiber network will serve about 40 locations around the boundaries of the city (population 34,000).

Besides establishing better connectivity between the three public partners’ buildings, the network is expected to provide opportunities for commercial companies to lease telecommunications services. The network would allow the city to lease some of the 288 fiber strands to commercial companies, such as other Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Financing and Break Even

Under the cooperative arrangement, the library will contribute $17,616 annually, the city $68,484 per year and the school district $177,900 each year until the project is paid off. “These costs are derived from the amounts that each entity is currently paying for leased broadband connectivity between their facilities,” Upper Arlington Assistant City Manager Dan Ralley told us. 

The period anticipated to pay off the network construction is nine years with the school district and library able to extend the parties’ shared-services agreement for an additional 15 years after. The extensions would occur in three five-year segments.

Cost savings, broader bandwith

Ralley says the primary benefits of the new city fiber-optic network will be significantly lower long-term bandwidth and broadband access costs.  For example, the city of Upper Arlington expects to save about $1,280 a month for Internet service by building its own fiber network. Over 10 years, the city’s savings would total about $150,000.

And the municipal network will be a boon for the Upper Arlington public schools. In an Oct. 19, 2015 staff report, Ralley said:

Upper Arlington Schools’ available bandwith capacity is a growing concern given the current and future 21st century learning initiatives that are premised upon the use of technology. With increased bandwith between buildings, the potential for ubiquitous computing is possible along with more collaborative learning tools delivered through online learning management systems.

Network will enable access to two major data centers

Another benefit: the new network will enable Upper Arlington to “gain direct access to two different data centers located on the periphery of our community,” Ralley told us. Those are “the Ohio Supercomputing Center and a private facility owned by Expedient that will allow us to locate our servers in a carrier neutral facility that has redundant power feeds and lower broadband access costs,” he noted. 

“Expedient can provide the City an internet connection of 30 Mbps which is burstable to 100 Mbps at a much lower cost than our current provider,” Ralley said in his Oct. 19 staff report. 

New network incentive for economic development

Not to be overlooked, Upper Arlington’s new fiber-optic network is also expected to boost the community’s desirability for economic development.

“The number of businesses that are looking for access to affordable, high bandwith is increasing,” Ralley said in his staff report. He added:

While Upper Arlington does not have a large number of businesses that would typically utilize fiber optic data connections, we have attractive commercial development areas where access to available fiber can be used to attract businesses that require large bandwith. The City could leverage the community fiber optic network for economic development incentives or use it to help lower the cost of operating a business in UA, thereby providing a competitive advantage.

In one case, the city will be providing dark fiber to a new Ohio State University Medical facility that is currently under construction, Ralley told us. That arrangement is a condition of a $500,000 grant that the state of Ohio has given Upper Arlington to build its fiber-optic network. Dark fiber, fiber-optic cable currently not in use, is particularly important for medical centers because it offers more control over network quality and allows for very fast networks at affordable budgets. 

Also the city will be entering into an IRU (Indefeasible Right of Use) with the fiber construction contractor Thayer, that will enable them to market and sublease fiber strands by other third parties, he said.

Given the direction of the Upper Arlington broadband network, the community will be getting a system that will have many potential benefits but little risk with the city serving as its anchor tenant.

Sanford, Maine Plans Largest Municipal Network in the State

A lot has happened in Sanford, Maine since our last report on their municipal fiber optic network discussions. After a year of deliberations over different proposals, the city recently announced plans to begin building a 32-mile municipal fiber-optic network.

The city of Sanford is inside York County, situated about 35 miles southwest of Portland. The network will provide connectivity to businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and residences in Sanford along a limited route where there is sufficient customer density. City leaders plan to also provide a foundation for future expansion of the network to additional residential areas in the city. The network will be open access, allowing multiple ISPs to provide services via the publicly owned infrastructure.

The city will partner with Maine-based company GWI (Great Works Internet) to operate the network. Readers may recognize GWI as the same company working with Rockport, Maine's first community to invest in a municipal fiber network.

Once they complete the buildout, Sanford will be in an elite class of a just few cities nationwide that provide widespread access to 10 Gbps broadband. It is a bold plan for this city of just over 20,000 in a state that last year ranked 49th in the nation in average broadband speeds.

The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, a major driving force behind the project, sees the project as critical to their broader economic development efforts:

Like the growth council, this project is a public-private partnership stemming from the exploration of a best business model allowing for municipal investment and input while leveraging the strengths and expertise of private sector for-profit business. The growth council recognizes the collaboration of the public private partnership as the best means to accomplish the City’s economic development strategies.

The new network is also the first major loop in Maine that will connect to the state’s existing Three Ring Binder network. Constructed in 2012, the middle-mile Three Ring Binder spans 1,100 miles around much of Maine. The network was a product of private investments and $25 million in stimulus money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

According to a study commissioned by the Economic Growth Council, the network could generate between $47 million and $192 million in economic benefits over the next decade. The Economic Growth Council and the the city are still seeking funding to build the network, estimated at $1.5 million. The city expects to cover costs through agreements they’re pursuing with anchor institutions and savings they'll see by eliminating the cost of leasing lines to city government buildings and schools.

The city is also considering Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a process we described in a previous article about another network using the process:

“Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.”

A small number of municipal broadband projects have been funded with TIF, but this arrangement can be controversial as it removes substantial property value from the general taxbase. Most choose revenue bonds, interdepartmental loans, or by redirecting savings gained when city can build incrementally thereby avoiding payments for leasing lines from providers. Fortunately, Maine remains one of the states where local communities have the freedom to choose whether or not they invest in Internet networks and how they finance such a project.

At the meeting to announce plans for the network, U.S. Senator from Maine, Angus King, summed up the network's importance to the state's future:

“High-speed broadband is a gateway to economic and educational opportunity in the 21st century,” King said. “But right now, there are too many people who are denied those opportunities simply because they don’t have adequate Internet access.”

EPB Turns Up The Speed To 10 Gigs

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics now offers 10 gigabit Internet service to all households and businesses in its service area. The ultra-fast service is available for $299 per month with free installation, no contracts, and no cancellation fees, announced community leaders at a press conference on October 15th.

In addition to 10 gig service, EPB is also offering "Professional" products available in 3 gig, 5 gig, and 10 gig for large businesses. Smaller businesses have the option of choosing 5 gig or 10 gig Internet products. According to the press release, prices on all the new products vary.

Since the network was launched in 2010, Chattanooga has transformed from one of the "dirtiest cities in America" to a haven for the entrepreneurial culture. Chattanooga experienced explosive economic development leading to thousands of new jobs, substantial public savings due to the network's smart grid capabilities, and new educational opportunities for students and workforce development.

From the press release:

Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has produced tangible results. A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage durations.[read the study here

The city created a standard other communities strive to achieve; we often see communities aiming for the $70 gigabit price point offered by EPB. As a leader for other municipalities, it is only fitting that Chattanooga has taken this next step forward.

Also from the press release:

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” [Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB] said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Read more about Chattanooga's journey to become a gigabit community in our 2012 report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.

School District Will Cut Connectivity Costs 85% With Public Fiber in Iowa

Plans for a fiber network collaboration between the city, school district, and county will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in Stormlake, Iowa. The school district recently voted to take advantage of significant savings for connectivity by switching to the publicly owned infrastrucutre as soon as the network is ready.

The Storm Lake Pilot recently reported that under the current contract with Vast Broadband, the district pays $7,500 per month to lease two strands of fiber. The new arrangement will allow the district to lease 12 fibers from the city-owned network for $14,000 per year or $1,167 per month - a reduction of approximately 85 percent. The city and the school district will enter into a 10-year agreement to ultimately save the district a total of $760,000 or approximately $6,333 per month during the term of the lease.

The school will still need to pay for Internet access and as part of the agreement will be responsible for purchasing its own equipment. The School Board voted unanimously to approve the agreement.

As we reported in July, the Stormlake project began as a way to better communication between water and wastewater utility facilities but then evolved into a public safety and cost saving initiative. All three entities - Storm Lake Community School District, the City of Storm Lake, and Buena Vista County - anticipate considerable savings and heightened reliability. We expect to report on more public savings as the community uses this valuable fiber asset.

Project costs for the system of conduit and fiber, which does not include hardware, are estimated at approximately $1,374,000 to be shared by all three entities. This first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed by December.

Chicago Alderman Advocates Public Fiber For Municipal Savings

At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.

Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government eliminated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.

“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”

Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.

The city is trying to find ways to generate revenue amidst a major $30 billion employee pension crisis that led Moody’s to downgrade the city’s bond rating to junk status in May.

One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.

DC-Net Delivers Public Savings

Washington, DC, continues to operate an incredibly successful municipal network. Created in 2007, the municipal government’s 57-mile fiber optic network, DC-Net, provides connectivity to government buildings and community anchor institutions that are health or education based. DC-Net started providing public Wi-Fi hotspots in 2010. We covered some of the savings of DC-Net itself in our 2010 report, and we recently found a report from 2012 that details an example of public savings from the network.

In 2008, the Office of Personnel Management in D.C. needed to replace its aging phone system with state-of-the-art Voice over IP and a video conference system. These two telecommunication systems require a high capacity network. After a market analysis found that prospective vendors would cost more than the budget could handle, they had to find an alternative solution. That’s when they connected with DC-Net. The network kept costs down - the initial cost-savings from the project were about $500,000. 

DC-Net also provided more than Office of Personnel Management had originally anticipated: redundancy, more connectivity, and better coverage. With the added redundancy, the phone and Internet have had less outages. DC-Net then provided gigabit ethernet to the headquarters and Wi-Fi coverage. 

The total cost savings for the Office of Personnel Management over the first 6 year period (from 2008 to 2014) are estimated at $9.25 million. They came in at budget with more connectivity than they had anticipated by using a municipal network that was committed to meeting their needs. Sounds like a good deal to us.