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2016 Municipal Technology Conference May 5, in Augusta, ME

The 2016 Municipal Technology Conference is coming up on Thursday, May 5th, 2016 at the Augusta Civic Center in the state capital. The conference is sponsored by the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) and the Maine GIS UserGroup (MEGUG) in cooperation with Maine’s ConnectME Authority

The conference title - “Ready. Set. Grow!” - captures one of the major themes of the conference, where several panel sessions will focus on the topic of municipal networks. Several Maine communities, including Rockport, Sanford, Orono and Old Town, and Bar Harbor, have made progress in the past couple of years toward creating locally-grown fiber networks. 

Some notable people appearing as panelists and presenters at the conference include:

Jeff Letourneau - As the Executive Director of Networkmaine, Mr. Letourneau oversees the University of Maine’s cyber-infrastructure. He has been involved in numerous network initiatives in Maine including the first Internet connection project in Maine in the 1980s, the first K-12 school and public library network (MSLN) in the US in the 1990s, and he co-authored a federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant that led to a $25 million loan for Maine’s middle-mile network, the Three Ring Binder. Letourneau is also a member of the ConnectMaine Authority Advisory Board and a former member of the Maine State Legislature’s Broadband Strategy Council.

Sue Inches -  As a Senior Consultant for Tilson Technology Company, a Maine-based network construction and consulting company, Sue Inches has helped communities to successfully navigate the political waters of planning for municipal network projects for more than 20 years. She has also served in various other private and governmental positions, including a post as Deputy Director of the State Planning Office, a state agency that performs policy analysis and research for municipal projects.

Representatives from several Maine communities in various stages of developing municipally-owned networks will also appear at the conference, including:

  • Steven Buck - City Manager for the City of Sanford
  • Steve Cornell - Technical Systems Administrator for the Town of Bar Harbor
  • Belle Ryder - Assistant Manager for the Town of Orono

Appearing as a presenter will be Brian Lippold, the Director Broadband/Telecom Consulting for the James W. Sewall Company, an engineering company that has been working with the Maine Town of Fort Fairfield on a fiber network feasibility study.

Those interested in attending the conference can register and find additional details online. The cost of attending the conference is: 

  • $70 for MMA Member Municipalities/Patrons/Non-Profits/State Agencies, MEGUG Members, or ConnectME Authority Affiliates
  • $140 for Non Member Municipalities
  • $100 for Business Representatives

Grass Will Be Greener With FairlawnGig In Ohio

Fairlawn, Ohio, a quaint little city in Northern Ohio, it is about to get a big Gig – lightning fast Internet speeds of up to one Gigabit (1000 Megabits) per second (Gbps) – for $75 a month. The city has considered the prospect of such a network since last year, and now the community is moving forward.

On April 4th, Fairlawn City Council unanimously approved several ordinances to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network (FTTH) called “FairlawnGig.” For financing, the network will use revenue bonds in an agreement with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

A New FTTH Muni

In November 2015, Fairlawn hired a consultant and envisioned a public-private partnership for the FTTH plan of FairlawnGig. Now, however, these ordinances ensure that the $10 million network that will begin construction in May 2016 will in fact be a municipal network. The ordinances enable the city to enter into a contract with a firm to design and construct the network in the way that best meets the community’s needs.

Currently, the prices are established as:

  • Residential 1 Gbps – $75
  • Residential 100 Mbps - $55
  • Residential 30 Mbps - $30

All speeds will be symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. The network will also offer phone service for an extra $25 a month. Businesses have similar speeds for prices between $90 and $500.

FairlawnGig will serve not only the 7,500 residents of Fairlawn, but it will also provide connectivity to the Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Joint Economic Development District. Ohio communities use these sort of districts to share infrastructure improvement projects.

From Vision to Reality

After thanking the City Council for passing the ordinances that have enabled the FTTH project, Fairlawn Mayor William J. Roth, Jr. further reiterated the purpose of the network:

“Our vision to make world-class, high-speed Internet services available to the residents and businesses of Fairlawn is now a reality. FairlawnGig will deliver a faster, better, and different Internet service from a trusted local provider, and will significantly aid in our efforts to promote economic development and commercial and residential growth in the City of Fairlawn.”

To learn more about the network and keep up to date on the project, check out FairLawnGig.net, the new network’s website.

Islesboro, Maine: RFP For FTTP Is Out There!

Islesboro is moving forward with plans to join Rockport, Sanford, and other Maine communities that want to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. They have released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to take them into the construction phase. From the Isleboro website:

The Town of Islesboro, Maine is seeking a contractor to manage the construction of a Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network spanning approximately 50 miles connecting 750 properties including a wireless component connecting outlying islands.

The Town is seeking bids for an Owner's Project Manager (OPM) to oversee fiber optic and wireless construction, network equipment installation, and inside wiring and customer premise installation.

Bids are due April 28th, 2016

The island town has also published a Question and Answer update to address common concerns.

The Maine Event

We have followed news of the proposed project, and learned that GWI will likely offer services via the publicly owned fiber infrastructure, much like in Rockport. Fairpoint DSL serves most of the island community's residents now and subscribers are not happy with unreliable, spotty Internet access. Last summer the community began the process of approving funding for the network, estimated at $2.5 - $3 million.

For more information, visit the Islesboro website.

April 21st Webinar: "Municipal Broadband: Competition, Opportunity, or Both?"

A diverse panel of telecom industry experts will gather on April 21st for a webinar to discuss the emerging partnership role of private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) within the growing municipal broadband movement.

Featured speakers at the webinar, hosted by the leading telecom industry blog Telecompetitor, will include:

  • Doug Dawson, President - CCG Consultants: Doug Dawson has nearly 40 years of experience providing support for the planning, fund-raising, technical and operational aspects of creating broadband networks. Dawson is also the author of POTs and PANs, a daily blog covering current issues in the telecom industry.
  • Mark Mrla, Business Unit Manager -  Finley Engineering: Mark Mrla is involved in the design, budgeting, scheduling, and implementation processes for power, telecommunications and technology projects for clients of Finley Engineering. 
  • Dan Olsen, Project Manager - Finley Engineering: Former General Manager for Minnesota's WindomNet, Dan has firsthand experience making a fiber network a reality. When the webinar is over, check out Episode #64 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and listen to Chris interview him about WindomNet.

The hour-long webinar, sponsored by Finley Engineering, will air live on Thursday, April 21st from 2:00 - 3:00 pm Central Standard Time (CST). You can register to participate in the webinar on the Telecompetitor Website. Even if you cannot attend the webinar live, the organizers encourage you to register for the webinar because your registration instructions will include information about accessing Telecompetitor’s on-demand archives.

Once you register, you will receive instructions via email on how to join the discussion. The live discussion begins here on April 21st.

Knowledge Is Power

These discussions are essential for communities to learn the pros and cons of partnerships with ISPs. A growing number of local communities are watching as places like Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Georgia, take smart approaches with potential partners. On the other hand, public private partnerships are fraught with risk. We encourage every community to carefully examine the facts, look at the options, and proceed with caution.

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.