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Ottawa Keeps Connecting Businesses in the Corn Belt
Almost six years ago, we told readers about Ottawa, Kansas, where the community of around 13,000 people had invested in publicly owned fiber optic connectivity for local businesses. We recently touched base with IT Director Paul Sommer, who updated us on the progress of their broadband utility and how it has impacted the community.
Steady as it Grows
When we first met Ottawa, they had worked with the local school district and Franklin County to capitalize on existing fiber infrastructure and expand to more locations. Local leaders had learned from Ottawa businesses that the best options available from incumbent AT&T were T1 lines for approximately $600. Higher capacity connections were scarce and financially out of reach for local establishments, and AT&T could not be convinced to upgrade their infrastructure. As Bigham put it, AT&T was "milking the cow."
Once the city, school district, and Franklin County established a partnership, Ottawa began to expand fiber to other municipal facilities and businesses as requested. Sommers, who has taken over as IT Director, says that now all 10 city buildings are on the network. In addition to an industrial park on the original infrastructure on the north end of town, the network now reaches an industrial park to the south.
The electric utility has trained their own staff rather than hiring external fiber deployment personnel. In addition to enriching skills, their employees are able to respond quickly if there are downed cables or other maintenance issues. Sommers recalls an instance when a car, which had caught fire, sent shrapnel flying into the air. By a twist of fate, one piece severed the fiber optic cable hanging some distance away. His team was able to rehang and splice the cable that same day and get the subscriber back online.
By using electric utility staff, Ottawa has reduced the cost of their incremental build over the years. They typically budget around $100,000 each year for expansion of the network, have never gone over, and often don’t spend the entire allotment. Sommers says that, since they own the utility poles in town, have necessary personnel on hand, and equipment at the ready, unnecessary bureaucracy doesn’t slow down maintenance, repairs, or expansion efforts.
Bursting at the Streams
Missoula Schools Set To Save With Self-Provisioning
The Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) plans to save $150,000 per year by investing in its own fiber infrastructure. Over a 20-year period school officials expect to save approximately $3 million.
Fiber For Education And Savings
MCPS will be the first in the state to self-provision its wide area network (WAN), the connections between district facilities. Right now, the school pays approximately $287,000 per year to lease its WAN connections and for Internet access; about $200,000 of that figure is dedicated to leasing the WAN.
School officials were already leasing lit fiber service when they began investigating options to compare cost and service. They also looked at leasing dark fiber, which would mean they would need to maintain the equipment to light the fiber themselves, and investing in an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU). The IRU would give the school district the ability to use a designated number of fiber strands to use as they wished for a fixed period of time.
As other school districts around the country are discovering, the best choice for them was to own the infrastructure and control it themselves:
"We're saving the district $3 million over the next 20 years in the general fund that will be able to be allocated to other things," Littman said of self-provisioned fiber. "It's more than $3 million, actually. The reason we say we'll only end up saving the general fund $3 million in the end is because we do have some annual maintenance costs to incur to protect the fiber."
Leasing lit fiber for the speeds MCPS needs would have cost $1.5 million to $3.1 million for only a five-year contract. A dark fiber 10-year contract would have cost about $3 million.
Right now, the school pays approximately $287,000 per year to lease its WAN connections and for Internet access; about $200,000 of that figure is dedicated to leasing the WAN. The school will still need to contract for Internet access from an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight
A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.
The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections.
In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.
East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges
The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.
Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.
In Kansas, Ottawa Launches Own Fiber Optic Network
Ottawa, located in east central Kansas, recently launched its own municipal fiber network. The community of 13,000 in Franklin County watched nearby Chanute build and establish its own broadband utility. Ottawa plans a similar incremental strategy. Both communities boast strong farming traditions and host industrial employers that could not get what they needed from the existing providers.
I spoke with Chuck Bigham, IT Director for the City of Ottawa, who gave me some nuts and bolts on the network. I also touched base with City Manager Richard U. Nienstedt, both are heavily involved in the establishment of the network.
Like in Chanute, local leaders have long nourished a vision for better connectivity. In recent years, they realized the vision was not only attainable, but necessary for the community to thrive.
Approximately seventeen miles of fiber, installed by USD 290 and Franklin County in the 1990s, was already in the ground when the project began. Students and staff connected to the Internet and linked the 8-10 school district facilities via its fiber network. These pre-existing resources became the backbone of Ottawa's new utility. Cooperation between the City Municipal Utility, USD 290, and Franklin County facilitated the configuration of the new network. Ottawa now provides business Internet access, expanded educational opportunities, and a higher level of service than was previously available.
Two years ago, the City and its Chamber of Commerce reached out to major businesses to determine the need for broadband. They found businesses in Ottawa were connected through existing providers, but were unhappy with price and level of service. The community's industrial park seemed especially disadvantaged. Businesses needed better upload speeds than the existing T1s, which ran up to $600 per month. While DS3 connections were available, they were unaffordable and there was no level of service between the two options. Businesses could not convince AT&T to offer something they could afford and, as Bigham noted, the telecom giant appeared to be "milking the cow."