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Three Communities Make Big Moves Toward Municipal Fiber Networks

A March article in Broadband Properties Magazine spotlights three communities around the country that are making progress toward creating municipal fiber networks. The City of Centennial, Colorado announced that they have completed a feasibility study and a Master Plan detailing the city’s plans to develop a network. Additionally, the Cities of Indianola, Iowa and Rancho Cucamonga, California announced that they have begun studying the feasibility of starting their own municipal fiber networks. 

Indianola, Iowa

Indianola, Iowa is a city of about 15,000 just 20 miles south of Des Moines. As we wrote a few years ago, Indianola currently owns an open access Fiber-to-the Premise (FTTP) network which provides Gigabit speed Internet access, plus TV, and phone service to most businesses and select residents in Indianola. The study they recently commissioned will explore the feasibility of using this existing network for constructing a FTTP network to the entire community. 

Indianola built its existing fiber network, which they launched in 2012, out of frustration as CenturyLink refused requests from the community to upgrade their DSL network and the incumbent Mediacom began overcharging for their Internet services. Today, Indianola Municipal Utilities is the infrastructure owner and a wholesale provider of this fiber network while Mahaska Communication Group, an Iowa-based Internet Service Provider (ISP), performs the operations and maintenance services for the network. 

Rancho Cucamonga, California

The City of Rancho Cucamonga, California recently asked a private consulting firm to perform a study to determine the feasibility of creating a fiber optic network. City officials see a municipal fiber network in this city of just over 170,000 as a potential driver of economic development. The city is located about 45 miles east of Los Angeles.

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Like Indianola, Rancho Cucamonga owns existing fiber-optic infrastructure. They city owns 25 miles of 96 strand fiber and 5 additional miles of vacant fiber conduit connecting to numerous municipal facilities. The city plans to first create a network for municipal buildings and businesses. Later, Rancho Cucamonga will integrate the network into the city’s traffic system and expand the network to serve residents.

Centennial, Colorado

The City of Centennial, Colorado released the results of a feasibility study and Master Plan in March. The study and plan detail a strategy to expand an existing 48-mile dark fiber infrastructure to create an open access network in this Denver suburb of 100,000.

The Master Plan calls for the city to spend $5.7 million to expand its existing fiber infrastructure and create a municipal fiber network that will provide vastly improved Internet access to all of the schools, libraries, local government and public safety organizations in Centennial. The city is also designing the network to run close to major business and residential areas and will have enough capacity to serve businesses and households. The city would serve as a wholesale provider and lease the network infrastructure on a non-exclusive basis to private ISPs that would provide retail services to subscribers. 

Centennial uses its 48-mile fiber infrastructure to facilitate operations of the city’s traffic signal equipment and to connect its government facilities to privately owned Internet networks. In 2013, Centennial residents voted overwhelmingly in support of a ballot question to reclaim local telecommunications authority that had been hijacked in 2005 when the state legislature passed SB 152. The voters’ 3:1 approval of that referendum opened the door to other possibilities for their publicly owned fiber.

Centennial’s Mayor Pro Tem C.J. Whelan, the chair of Centennial’s Fiber Steering Committee, described city’s vision for the network:

“This plan provides the roadmap for a future fiber-optic network infrastructure that will become a key resource of the city and ultimately enable Centennial to pursue improvements to public services and enhance economic development.”

City Councilwoman Stephanie Piko added.

“The city will now be in a position to partner with anchor agencies, such as school districts and public-safety agencies to offer better alternatives for their technology needs and improve their services to our residents.”

BT Advisory Board and Community Agree: Local Is Best

As Burlington, Vermont, searches for a buyer for Burlington Telecom, the local residents and business owners continue to remain engaged in the future of their beloved Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Most recently, they made it clear that their first priority is finding a local company to own and operate the fiber network.

VT Digger reported that, according to a survey conducted by the BT Board of Advisors:

Several residents have said they would like to see Burlington Telecom sold to a locally owned co-operative and that their greatest concern is the utility being sold to one of its larger competitors such as Comcast, AT&T or FairPoint.

From the report:

Though the City is precluded by the terms of its settlement Agreement with Citibank from continuing to own the Asset, a carried equity interest is permitted. It is important that all ownership options be explored and considered in light of the legal requirements and the City’s goals for BT. However, the BTAB [Burlington Telecom Advisory Board] agrees with the vast majority of interested participants in this process that the sale of BT to one of its existing, national competitors would likely not be in the overall best interests of the City. 

At a recent meeting, David Provost, chair of the advisory board said, “The best option from our perspective is finding a buyer with ties to the local community that will allow the city to have a minority stake in Burlington Telecom."

A Troubled Past, An Uncertain Future

After years of cover-ups by the city's past leadership, CitiBank eventually sued Burlington for $33 million. The parties settled and, as part of the settlement, Burlington transferred ownership to Blue Water LLC, a company formed by Burlington businessman Trey Pecor. In exchange, Blue Water provided $6 million in bridge financing to allow the city to settle the lawsuit with Citibank. The city is still leasing the network temporarily but the ultimate goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. 

According to the terms of the settlement, Burlington can choose the new buyer but the sale must be finalized by January 2019. If not, Blue Water can choose the buyer and residents are worried it may end up being a company like Comcast, with no interest in the local community.

In December, as the BTAB wrapped up public meetings about the future of the network, VT Digger reported:

“We’ve heard very little to date about the $17 million,” Provost said, which is the amount of taxpayer money that was spent without authorization during Mayor Bob Kiss’ tenure to prop up Burlington Telecom. Provost said that’s come as a surprise, given the angry reaction from the public when that was revealed in 2009.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, participants weren’t evenly split on the issue. Most said they would like to see the city or residents retain some level of ownership in Burlington Telecom. One resident explained that, as a taxpayer, she would rather be able to use the asset than recoup the loss.

Residents Take Action

In late 2012, the Keep BT Local! Cooperative formed in an effort to maintain public ownership of the network. The co-op has been collecting equity and loan pledges with the long-term goal of obtaining approximately 4,000 residential and business membership pledges. The effort is ongoing and the group has said on their Facebook page that Members will be hearing more soon.

Sun Prairie Utilities' Pilot Project Shows Way to Better Connectivity

Welcome back to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. This town has brought to light the shocking stories of slack service from incumbent providers, the complicated decisions of community representatives, and the hopeful beginning of a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network

The City Council has just approved $16,000 to hire an engineering consultant for the estimated $27-35 million citywide plan. 

In the Pilot Project, So Much Demand!

In July 2015, City Council approved the $624,000 plan for the pilot project, but several factors brought the actual cost up to about $653,000. The pilot project area included the neighborhood Smith's Crossing, the Main Street Corridor, and the TIF District 9 area. 

Sun Prairie Utilities first slated the project for completion in early December, but that underwent several delays. For instance, an over-booked contractor started on the project a month later than expected. Meanwhile, rocky soil conditions and high-demand slowed the pace of construction while raising costs. The Sun Prairie Utilities Manager Rick Wicklund will present the final costs for the pilot project this month. 

The original budget had assumed a 30 percent take-rate that would see a positive cash flow in three years. In actuality, 54 percent of households in the pilot project area are requesting the services.

Forty-three percent have requested the 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.98 each month while 11 percent want the higher-speed service of 250 Mbps for $69.98 each month. The capital expenditure of these unexpected last mile connections brought the cost up, but the extra revenue from these connections will certainly help offset those costs. 

Pilot Project Teaches Lessons

In building the pilot project, the city council sought to learn if a municipal citywide FTTH network would be possible. With the overwhelming demand for Internet service in the pilot project area, a citywide network may be in the cards for this community of 29,000. 

The recently hired consultant will help determine the feasibility, while the city utility department will apply lessons from the pilot project. The city utility will continue to capitalize on their successes of the pilot project. Their outreach strategy worked very well, ensuring the high take rate, as Wicklund explained

“We did a really good job of marketing and contacting everyone, having neighborhood meeting and getting everyone excited about it, that has a lot to do with the high take rate.”

Sweet Sixteen: Waverly Utilities Hooks Up First Fiber Customers

This week in Waverly, Iowa, the local electric utility, Waverly Utilities, hooked up the first customers for its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. It’s been a long time coming for the town of 10,000 people. 

16 Years Ago: A Vision

The community first had the idea back in 2000 when they voted to form a municipal telecommunications utility after incumbent providers proved a letdown.  Reacting to the vote, those incumbent providers improved their networks a bit, so Waverly Utilities decided to hold off on building a fiber network. 

In 2013, residents and businesses found that the incumbent providers were again not providing necessary connectivity. Taking matters into their own hands, they pushed to create a new, publicly owned network. By 2015, the community had secured revenue bonds for the $12 million project.

Today: A Reality

Waverly Utilities already has 1,100 customers signed up to receive the service, and more homes and businesses will be connected over the next three months. By July 1st, Waverly Utilities’ network will be fully operational, delivering the next-generation connectivity that residents have long been waiting for.

For more about Waverly's project, take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Mike Litterer, who was serving as Interim General Manager of Waverly Light and Power in 2013. He talked with Chris during Episode #53 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

There's "MAGIC" In Westminster

It was just last year when the City Council in Westminster, Maryland voted to begin a partnership with private ISP company Ting Internet. Ting now delivers high quality Internet access via the citywide, publicly owned fiber network.

A new collaborative initiative, facilitated in part by the still expanding Westminster Fiber Network, is bringing new cultural opportunities and economic benefits to city residents. “Tech Incubation” aims to give local students hands-on experience exploring their interests in technology.

Incubating Talent, Innovation

For the first project within the Tech Incubation initiative, 15 students from local high schools spent several weeks learning to create and operate an actual temporary wireless network. The city then used the network for its annual Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration in March, providing attendees of the celebration with unprecedented levels of bandwidth and broadband speeds.

The Tech Incubation Initiative is the product of a collaboration between the City of Westminster, the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC), Ting Internet, and the Westminster-based company Freedom Broadband. Freedom Broadband supervised the project and provided the wireless equipment necessary to build the network; Ting and the City of Westminster provided the necessary Gigabit backhaul over the Westminster Fiber Network.

More Opportunities Ahead

This project is the first in a series of planned, ongoing projects to teach students technology skills and encourage a culture of innovation. MAGIC is developing the Tech Incubation program in response to requests by students in Westminster for more opportunities to learn about technology.

Westminster’s City Council President Dr. Robert Wack described the value of the Tech Incubation initiative to community:

“For the students, it’s mostly fun, but I’m sure some of them have specific goals for education and certainly the more tech savvy young people we have in this community, the better that is for our local economy.”

OECD Study on Munis Digs Deep, Discovers Dividends

A recent large-scale cross-national study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) offers strong evidence that municipal broadband networks provide numerous benefits for communities around the world. Among the study’s major findings include evidence that municipal networks contribute to efforts aimed at improving local economic development, stimulating business productivity and innovation, and enhancing people’s quality of life.

The study's analysis of European nations is of special interest to us as European municipal networks are the only international municipal networks in the study that closely resemble U.S. municipal networks. In particular, the findings from the study’s central econometric analysis of Swedish municipal networks have direct implications for our understanding of the impact of municipal networks in the United States.

Findings from Econometric Analysis of Sweden

As the researchers note, extensive municipal broadband development across Sweden has contributed to a remarkably high level of nationwide fiber penetration, putting the country far ahead of the US in global rankings. The researchers report a series of features and benefits of Sweden’s widespread fiber penetration and aggressive municipal broadband efforts, including:

Increased rates of employment (with even greater employment increases in highly urbanized municipalities), increased business creation, and reduced car usage (also greater in the most urban cities) as fiber networks make it easier to telecommute to work and to shop for goods and services online.

Overall Economic Development Benefits: The authors cite a previous socio-economic analysis of the municipally-owned broadband network in Stockholm, Sweden showing that this network has generated about $2.5 billion (U.S. dollars) in economic returns for the city, or three times the initial investment. This includes $1.2 billion through the creation of new jobs, $800 million in new economic activity for the broadband supplier industry, $300 million saved by the City of Stockholm from lower service costs, and $300 million in increased values of public housing properties, along with additional savings.

Benefits from E-services: 80 percent of municipalities in Sweden are able to provide enhanced e-services including home care, nursing services, social services, library services, civil dialogue, and digital security alarms, enabling significant cost savings for goods and services and improved quality of life for Swedish citizens. In particular, users of home medical care reported that digitally facilitated home care give them an increased sense of independence, security, participation, and freedom of choice in their health needs.

Benefits of improved competition: The prices for Internet service over Swedish municipal networks are 23 percent to 38 percent lower than national prices. Further, prices for service over open access networks are also 25 percent lower compared to those municipal networks that have only one ISP.

Policy: Although the Treaty on European Union generally prohibits state aid out of concern that it could stifle competition and discourage private investment, the Treaty does permit state aid for public private partnerships (PPPs). Notably, the Treaty also makes exceptions on its prohibition of state aid for rural areas lagging behind the European Commission’s Digital Agenda 2020 targets which call for universal European access to 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband speeds and 100 Mbps connectivity for at least 50 percent of the population by 2020.

Early Federal Stimulus: A federal bill in the year 2000 allocated $900 million to stimulate nationwide equality of access to information for Swedish citizens. The authors credit this bill with prompting a proliferation of major broadband initiatives in the ensuing years.

The Swedish Model: To be eligible for state aid, the Swedish government requires community networks to be operator-neutral (open access). Thus, most Swedish community networks are open access and 93 percent of the nation’s municipal networks have at least two ISPs offering service.

PPPs: These Swedish municipal networks are generally structured as PPPs in which a municipality or regional group of cities own a carrier-neutral infrastructure (owned by a neutral party that is NOT one of the ISPs). As the authors report, a general consensus exists among Swedish policy makers and market actors that PPPs, in combination with an open access model, serve to effectively “safeguard a competitive market on services and applications for the benefit of consumers and businesses” (p. 51).

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Additional Findings about International Municipal Networks

The study’s strongest and most consistent finding was that municipal broadband networks around the world inject competition into local telecommunications markets. According to the researchers, these enhanced competitive environments generally lead to lowered Internet service prices, increased investment by the private providers in markets with municipal initiatives, and/or increased opportunities for private ISPs to use shared infrastructure over open access networks.

An analysis of the UK offers conclusive evidence that access to fiber networks in businesses leads to increased worker productivity.

The importance of pre-existing public utilities: Community networks tend to have the most success in communities that had pre-existing public utilities for services such as water, energy, or gas before they developed their community networks.

Successful municipal networks require competent personnel, sound organizational structure: Cases of failed municipal networks tend to share a common characteristic: lack of previous organizational and financial stability in those cities. In other words, in the observed cases of some failed municipal networks, the study’s findings suggest that such failure is typically due to pre-existing deficiencies in the organizational structure and personnel in those communities, not because the networks were inherently problematic.

Citizens are willing to contribute resources/expertise to solve local broadband needs: In addition to the country's 190 municipal networks, Sweden also has around 1000 small village fiber networks that are generally operated as co-ops. The authors observed cases in these villages where the citizenry voluntarily contributed their labor or other resources, including machinery, to assist in the construction of municipal broadband networks. Some of the telecommunications companies in Sweden provide tool kits and other services to help villages collaborate to help solve their own fiber access needs.

The study offers a useful overview of municipal broadband issues in each nation studied, providing a glimpse into a variety of relevant public policies, common strategies, and other major developments in the deployment of municipal networks in the respective countries. We encourage you to check out the entire study.

Additional Notes on the Analysis of Swedish Municipal Networks

Importantly, the researchers chose Sweden for their central econometric analysis largely because its high number of municipal fiber networks offers an especially large sample set for analysis purposes. They were also careful to statistically control for potentially confounding variables in their analyses.  For example, they controlled for variables that could otherwise skew the evidence of benefits from municipal networks such as local tax rates, average yearly income per person, population age distribution, and share of foreigners and immigrants. These measures help to ensure that the observed benefits of municipal networks are actually due to the impact of municipal networks and not a product of any other secondary variables. 

Holland, Michigan Pilot Project Could Lead to More

pilot project in the City of Holland, Michigan is now delivering gigabit speed Internet service via a dark fiber network built by the city more than two decades ago; three commercial buildings are connected. The project, led by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), is the first phase in an effort to develop a municipally owned and operated fiber network.

Holland is home to about 33,500 people and situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. The community is known for its roots in Dutch culture and is a popular summer tourist destination. Windmills and tulips dot the landscape.

Daniel Morrison, the president of a software company in Holland and a member of a local public interest group called Holland Fiber, recognizes that businesses need fast, affordable, reliable connectivity:

“Our whole business is online,” he told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “We’re working with clients all over the world and we want to be able to work as quickly as possible.”

Morrison’s company is a pilot tester. After the testing program began in January, Morrison Tweeted out a screen grab showing his Internet speeds:

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Pretty darn fast.

Toward a Municipal Network?

Pilot testing is set to last for three months to allow Holland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) to test out network technologies and solicit feedback from testers. All of the pilot testers are getting free fiber Internet service during the testing period.

Holland's BPW plans to apply their findings from the test toward a business plan for a municipal network for the entire service area. They will also use the business plan to support an application to the State of Michigan to become an authorized Internet Service Provider. BPW officials expect state regulators to respond to their application by the fall of 2016.

History of Holland’s Fiber Network

Holland first installed a 17 mile, 48-count fiber optic ring in 1992. It successfully facilitated a “smarter” power grid for the city, improving the reliability of various electrical facilities and equipment. In 2003, the city extended the fiber network to most of the school facilities in the local school districts.

Since the mid-1990s, the BPW has also provided limited wholesale Internet services to a small number of businesses that need high capacity data services. After expansion and extension of the network over the years, Holland now has 76 backbone miles of fiber, more than 150 total route miles, and fiber counts of up to 288 strands.

Envisioning a Better Future

Holland was one of the many cities across the country that tried unsuccessfully to lure Google Fiber to their town in 2010. After that disappointment, BPW released a “Broadband Strategic Plan” in 2011 in which they laid out their objectives for providing improved Internet service in Holland. That plan resulted in a recommendation to invest $58 million in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The Holland City Council never voted to adopt the plan.

Michigan has restrictions, but those state barriers apply when a community decides to invest in municipal Internet network infrastructure as was the case in Sebewaing. In those cases, a community can only build the network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. Holland already has fiber in place.

The pilot project is an important step in developing a municipal fiber network in Holland. With the existing infrastructure already in place, the community can assert local authority over the development of a 21st century utility that will benefit the businesses, government services, and residents in this community for years to come.

Santa Monica's Muni To Help Bridge The Digital Divide

Earlier this month, the Santa Monica City Council met to approve rates for the city's Digital Inclusion Pilot Program. The program is already in place, bringing free Gigabit per second (Gbps) Internet access to computers in community rooms in ten affordable housing complexes. The March 1st vote expands the program to offer residents the opportunity to sign up for services in their homes.

According to the Santa Monica Mirror, official monthly rates are set at $69 for 1 Gbps and $360 for 10 Gbps. People receiving Public Assistance will be able to obtain a discount to lower the rates to $48 and $252 per month respectively. An additional FCC Lifeline subsidy for those who qualify will lower the cost further to $38.25 per month for 1 Gbps Internet access. Download and upload speeds are the same.

Staff at the city established the rates for the pilot after studying rates in other markets where Gigabit access is available including Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Google Fiber. In order to support adoption in lower income households, city staff analyzed discounts that typically apply for other utilities and suggested a 30 percent discount for those actively participating in those programs. This approach does not exclude the elderly or households without school age children, one of the criticisms of Comcast's Internet Essentials. The staff report is available at the city website.

The Council approved a resolution, which also included construction funding of $175,000 for the project.

“In a global economy, any competitive edge we can offer our community is a worthy venture,” Gary Carter, Santa Monica City’s Community Broadband Manager told The Mirror.

“Santa Monica is uniquely positioned to collaboratively innovate as a community to fully leverage the technology of a cutting edge fiber optic network.” 

Long Time Coming

The Digital Inclusion Program is one part of Santa Monica's 1998 Telecommunications Master Plan, which included the development of its municipal fiber network CityNet. Their network started as an I-Net, used exclusively for government functions, then over time the city expanded to offer dark fiber and lit services to businesses and anchor institutions. We covered the city's public investment in 2014 when we wrote about their incremental approach to fiber deployment in our case study, Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. The community received a number of awards and recognitions over the years, inspiring other communities to carefully plan out a strategy with a Master Plan.

Learn more from Jory Wolf, CIO at Santa Monica, who spoke with Chris in Episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

Chattanooga's EPB Sparks Local Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics continues to stand out as a model for the municipal broadband movement, demonstrating the extraordinary impact that fast, affordable, reliable Internet access can have on economic development efforts. 

Now, a new research report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation highlights the network’s vital role in kick starting the development of what has become a thriving “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in this city of about 174,000.

Collaboration, Public Private Partnerships

The report, titled "Little Town, Layered Ecosystem: A Case Study of Chattanooga," credits the EPB network as the “spark” for an explosion of economic development since the network's launch in 2010. As the article notes, the EPB estimates that since the launch, Chattanooga has seen an influx of ninety-one new companies with approximately $50 million in venture capital contributions from six firms. 

According to the report, the network has also encouraged an entrepreneurial climate in this city that had a “long history of collaboration and public-private partnerships” even prior to the network launch. The report cites examples of the city's collaborative spirit in several non-profit entities, city officials, local anchor companies and universities, and the city’s recently opened Innovation District.

Yasuyuki Motoyama, director of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation and one of the paper's authors, explains the lessons that other cities might take away from Chattanooga’s example:

"Chattanooga organized and mobilized its assets to orient itself to entrepreneurial initiatives. This demonstrates what a small-size city can do when factions from different sectors focus on a common goal and collaborate to achieve that goal. This case of Chattanooga provides lessons for other cities to leverage their own unique assets and to create equally successful ecosystems."

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!