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A New Municipal Broadband Advocacy Organization is Born
With an unprecedented opportunity for local communities to build their own ubiquitous high-speed Internet infrastructure, a new national organization has been formed to advocate on behalf of municipal broadband initiatives and to give local governments a seat at the table as federal and state officials craft legislation and grant programs to close the digital divide.
Today, at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022 in Houston, the group’s founding members held a press conference to announce the birth of the American Association of Public Broadband (AAPB).
“We were formed by a group of municipal officials in order to advance advocacy efforts for public broadband and to make sure they have a voice in Washington and in all 50 states,” said AAPB board member Bob Knight.
Knight went on to explain that while AAPB will be advocating for municipal solutions to local connectivity challenges, “we are model agnostic, whether you want to partner with a large ISP (Internet Service Provider), build your own network, or form a public-private partnership.”
A ‘Voice in the Conversation’
Noting that AAPB will work closely with ally organizations and industry groups, AAPB was founded primarily “because municipal networks didn’t have much of a voice in the conversation around broadband funding in the American Rescue Plan Act or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” even as there was significant lobbying efforts on behalf of the big telecom companies.
AAPB Secretary Kimberly McKinley added that lawmakers are often assailed with stories about municipal broadband failures but that it was important for lawmakers to hear the whole story.
Traverse City, Michigan Launches Fiber Network
Traverse City has officially launched its new municipal Fiber-to-the-Home network in the northern Michigan town of 15,000. The city's municipal electric utility, Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P), owns the network and operates it in a partnership with Fujitsu, with the latter building and initially helping operate it, but turning management over to TCLP as the city utility feels comfortable with each aspect of the operation.
TCL&P Fiber is being built incrementally, starting in the downtown area where the economic heart of the community lies. The first phase is estimated to cost $3.5 million and will offer 2,200 locations service. The rest of the community will be connected in coming years and perhaps ultimately areas outside the current electric footprint.
Getting up to Speed
Traverse City has been working in the communications space for more than 10 years with dark fiber leases to major anchor institutions and key economic entities. In more recent years they were providing free Wi-Fi downtown while considering how to improve Internet access to smaller businesses and residents. For years, they examined various options, with serious consideration of an open access network where the city would build the infrastructure but other ISPs would use it to connect customers.
In an interview today, TCL&P Executive Director Tim Arends told us that they moved on this project after sensing a lot of pent up demand for better service — with speed, reliability, and especially customer service as common complaints with existing service. Though TCL&P did not name check the existing providers, AT&T DSL and Charter Spectrum cable are the main incumbent providers.
Traverse City Handling Business of Broadband Branding
As the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project moves along in Traverse City, Michigan, utility board members are establishing the elements to set the service apart from other Internet access options in the community. The Record-Eagle reports that the board will decide in March on rates and that they've already chosen a name and logo.
The new service will be TCLP fiber and their tagline will be "Your Community Network." Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P) are banking on the connection to their municipal electric utility. TCL&P will receive help marketing the service from Fujitsu, the company hired by Traverse City to design and operate the network.
Fujitsu Network Communications Marketing Lead Lori Butler said the name draws on the brand recognition the utility already has, while differentiating the new enterprise. The tagline “Your Community Network” emphasizes the public utility’s mission and the fact that it’s a community-owned network, she said.
Butler said the proposed logo also draws on the familiar, adding the word “fiber” and the tagline to the existing network, plus a strand of fiber optic cable. She showed the board a few proposed color combinations, and they ultimately gravitated toward a blue and yellow design similar to the existing logo, with a darker blue added as an accent.
Fujitsu also recommended rates, which will be approved by the utility board in March:
Fujitsu...suggested [basic] rates from $59.99 per month for residential customers to $149.99 a month for commercial customers. Those rates would buy download and upload speeds of 200 megabits per second residential; one gigabit per second commercial.
Scott Menhart, TCL&P chief information technology officer, said 200 megabits per second is twice as fast as what most area commercial providers offer in their base package, and they typically offer upload speeds of just 10 megabits per second.
Traverse City Light and Power Votes "Yes" on Fiber Deployment Negotiations
At their May 14th board meeting, the Traverse City Light & Power Board (TCLP) decided to move forward and begin contract negotiations with Fujitsu Network Communications to expand the city’s fiber optic network in order to begin serving residents as well as businesses.
A Careful Approach
The community of about 10,000 has taken a cautious approach as they’ve investigated the possible ways to improve Internet access in the community. TCLP and city leaders have thoroughly examined the pros and cons, which has allowed them to make decisions based on ample amounts of information.
Earlier this year, they hired Fujitsu to develop a potential business plan, along with a design and operations plan for a municipal network. In past years, the city issued an RFI for a partner to develop an open access network on which TCLP would offer services as an Internet access provider, and they’ve commissioned a feasibility study which examined leasing to a single provider or operating as a municipal Internet access network. TCLP has also discussed the possibility of working with an electric cooperative that operates the region. In the end, they decided to pursue a municipal fiber network.
Traverse City has operated its own downtown WiFi for more than a decade, so understands the value of Internet access to the economy, while folks who live there have come to appreciate access to connectivity.
Taxpayers Protection Alliance Trolling Vinton, Iowa
Vinton, Iowa, is on the road to Internet access self-reliance as the community of about 5,100 people continue to move forward with their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project. They’ve come under attack, however, from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA). The group is part of a web of organizations aimed at increasing corporate dominance and corporate concentration of power. TPA sent a letter filled with the usual twisted anti-muni spin, but this time went a step farther. A TPA senior fellow mischaracterized a quote from one of the industry’s most respected experts in order to push their harmful agenda.
Former State Representative Chip Baltimore did not run for re-election last year and now fills his days trying to prevent competition for the large incumbent ISPs. His methods include interfering in local communities’ decisions to improve connectivity. In an attempt to undermine the project and frighten community leaders out of supporting it, Baltimore sent a letter to Vinton Municipal Electric Utility Board Members in February.
The letter included several overused fallacies that permeate TPA literature and in other letters we’ve seen directed to decision makers in other communities. Baltimore also included a quote from Joanne Hovis from CTC Technology & Energy. The quote applied to take rates in another part of the country far away from Vinton.
Farr Technologies, the consultants that performed the feasibility study for Vinton, estimated that iVinton could achieve take rates of 40 percent in the first year and grow to 62 percent within five years. Baltimore tried to use Hovis’s statement, which applied to a different community, to discredit Farr’s estimate. It’s true that these rates appear high, but folks in Vinton have shown that they believe the electric utility can provide better service than incumbents Mediacom or CenturyLink. Farr’s consultants considered the community’s survey results, expressions of dissatisfaction with current incumbents, and the electric utility’s stellar reputation with customers when estimating future take rates.
Locally Owned Broadband Enables Rural Innovation With New Initiative
Innovation today requires a high-speed Internet connection, and in rural areas, that often means a fiber optic network owned by a local government, a cooperative, or a local business. It’s no surprise then that when the Rural Innovation Initiative was looking for rural communities with good connectivity and an interest in innovation-based economic development, it turned to cities served by locally owned broadband networks. Out of the nine communities initially selected to participate in the Rural Innovation Initiative, more than half have a local Internet access provider instead of a national ISP.
Initiative Bridges Rural Opportunity Gap
The Rural Innovation Initiative is a new program created by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), with funding and support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). Launched at the end of last year, the initiative works to “bridge the opportunity gap in rural America by helping communities build the capacity to create resilient, innovation-based jobs.”
For the first part of 2019, CORI and RISI selected nine cities and community partners to take part in what they describe as a “fast-paced technical assistance sprint,” which will help participants develop innovation hubs as an economic development strategy. The initiative will also prepare communities to apply for federal funding opportunities, such as EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies program. More than 100 rural communities from 40 states applied for the program, which is free for participants. Selection criteria included location in a census-designated rural county, access to New Market Tax Credits and Opportunity Zones, partnerships with higher education and local nonprofits, and existing high-speed broadband networks — Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in particular.
CORI and RISI, in partnership with EDA, will offer further technical assistance to communities through the Rural Innovation Initiative after this initial project complete. To learn more, watch a webinar about the program from December 2018.
Traverse City, Michigan, Releases Request for Information: Responses Due June 29th
Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) recently took the next step in their efforts to build out a citywide Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network. City leaders issued a Request for Information (RFI) for Partnership for Deployment; responses are due June 29th.
All the Possibilities
TCLP has had their own fiber network in place for about a decade. The city uses it to offer free Wi-Fi in the downtown area and leases excess capacity to anchor institutions, such as local hospitals and the school district. Like many other municipalities with similar infrastructure, TLCP invested in the network as a way to enhance electric services and provide communications between substations.
About a year ago, the community utility board decided unanimously to move forward with plans to adjust their capital improvement plan in order to fund fiber optic connectivity throughout the city. Their decision came after considerable deliberation on whether or not to expand their existing infrastructure and if the city should fill the role of Internet service provider (ISP).
They’ve had past conversations with local ISPs and a cooperative that is in the process of installing fiber within its service area. TCLP has also discussed various models, such as open access, retail services, and public-private partnerships. The community is taking time to do their homework and consider which approach is best for their unique situation.
Picking A Partner
A feasibility study completed last year recommended either operating a citywide network as a city utility or leasing it to a single partner. Last May, TCLP board members decided to seek out a partner rather than pursue the municipal utility option. The current RFI seeks a network operator to design, build, operate, and maintain what TCLP describes as the first phase of the project.
TCLP wants a relationship that:
1. Balances financial risk
Traverse City Picks A Path To FTTH
After long deliberation, utility board members in Traverse City have taken a firm step toward Internet infrastructure in order to improve connectivity in Michigan’s “Cherry Capital of the World.” The board of Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P) voted unanimously to adjust their six-year capital improvement plan to include the cost of a citywide fiber network.
Making A Decision
City leaders have considered several options to give residents and businesses better Internet access. They’ve had their own fiber infrastructure for about ten years, which they’ve leased to schools and hospitals and used to offer free downtown Wi-Fi. For over a year now, they've tossed around several possibilities on how to move forward to meet the demands of the community.
TCL&P has mulled over the pros and cons of offering retail services themselves as well as leasing the infrastructure to a single provider. The consultants who developed their feasibility study examined both options. A local group of tech enthusiasts encouraged TCL&P to consider an open access plan, but their consultants reviewed the option and advised against it. Other options were to do nothing or work with an electric cooperative serving the rural areas around the city.
At their May 10th meeting, board members decided to eliminate the option that places TCL&P in the role as retail ISP. They will expand the existing network by another 184 fiber miles over the next two years to approximately 10,800 customers; TCL&P will own and operate the infrastructure, but they intend to seek some other entity to serve as ISP. The up front investment is lower with this plan than if they were to operate as a muni ISP and they’ve had discussions with at least one interested provider. TCL&P officials note that their current decision doesn’t prevent them from an open access arrangement or contracts with multiple providers in the future.
Board members decided they weren’t ready for the extra investment required for TCL&P to serve as ISP in addition to infrastructure management:
A String of Municipal Network Ideas: Traverse City Mulls Options
The Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City, Michigan, continues to weigh its options to improve high-speed Internet service. The city of 12,000 homes and businesses has the results of a feasibility study and is carefully eliminating options as they look for the one that best suits their needs.
Most Likely Possibilities
Local newspapers, the Traverse Ticker and the Record Eagle, have followed the planning process. In late 2015, the city utility Traverse City Light and Power (TCL&P) began developing ideas on how to bring better connectivity to residents and businesses. The possibilities ran the gamut from an open access network to a public private partnership (PPP), and different groups within the community advocated for each option.
In February 2017, the community received the results of a feasibility study, which detailed two main options: operating the network as a city utility or leasing the network to a single private provider. Both options assume about two years for construction and an initial customer base of around 2,900 homes and businesses. The proposed prices are $25 per month for phone service, about $50 per month for 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) Internet access, and about $80 per month for a gigabit (1,000 Mbps) Internet access.
What About Open Access?
Cities With Municipal Networks Go Far In #StrongestTown Contest
Update: Traverse City, Michigan, took home the prize as 2017 #StrongestTown. Congrats to Traverse City!
Keeping with the spirit of March Madness, the nonprofit StrongTowns ran the second annual #StrongestTown contest based on the nonprofit’s Strength Test and Principles. Of the 16 communities that participated, almost a third have been featured on MuniNetworks.org for their Internet infrastructure plans: Ellsworth, Maine; Lafayette, Louisiana; Traverse City, Michigan; and Valparaiso, Indiana.
These five communities have battled their way forward against steep competition. Through articles and podcasts on Strong Towns, they tried to showcase how their residents are active in their communities and committed to change at the local level. All five overcame the initial rounds, and Traverse, City, Michigan made it to the final round against the Canadian city of Guelph. The winner will be announced Monday, March 27th on the contest page.
Community Networks Support Vibrant Towns
It comes as no surprise to us that these communities would be in the running for #StrongestTown. Building a community network takes public support and a realistic look at financials. Publicly owned networks encourage job creation, improve healthcare, and connect low-income residents. The towns that made the cut took different approaches to better connectivity.