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Garrett County, Maryland: Access For Anchors In The Appalachians

Garrett County is the westernmost county in Maryland. High in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain Range; winters are harsh and forest covers 90 percent of the county. Before the county deployed a fiber-optic network, high-quality connectivity was hard to come by for schools, libraries, and other community anchor institutions. By making the most of every opportunity, Garrett County has improved efficiencies for the many small communities in the region and set the stage to improve connectivity for businesses and residents.

Rural, Remote, Ready For Better Connectivity

The county is more than 650 square miles but there are no large urban centers and over time a number of sparsely populated areas have developed as home to the county's 30,000 people; since 2000, population growth has stagnated. Many of the tiny communities where businesses and residents have clustered are remote and do not have public sewer or water. These places tend to have a high number of low-income people. 

Unemployment rates are volatile in Garrett County, fluctuating with natural resources extraction industries. As the coal and lumber industries have waned, many jobs in Garrett County have disappeared. Garrett County Memorial Hospital and Beitzel industrial construction employ over 300 people and are the county’s largest employers. 

All of these characteristics make Garrett County unattractive to the large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that want to maximize investment and focus only on densely populated urban areas. Verizon offers DSL and Comcast offers cable in limited areas but many people rely on mobile Internet access and expensive satellite Internet access.

It Started With BTOP Fiber

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In 2010, the State of Maryland received over $115 million in grant funding through the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP). With a matching $43 million from state and in-kind contributions, Maryland deployed the One Maryland Broadband Network (OMBN). In August 2013, the middle mile fiber-optic network was complete, stretching 1,324 miles across the state connecting 1,068 CAIs.

OMBN runs directly into Garrett County for approximately 50 miles. Since then, the county has added fiber when they have had the funds. They have not borrowed or bonded to fund deployment, but obtained a grant from the Appalachian Resource Council (ARC) to extend the fiber from OMBN and to purchase equipment to light the network. The largest expansion was funded with a $250,000 ARC grant. The County invested $250,000 of its own funds to total $500,000 for the initial investment into Garrett County’s fiber network. Since then, the county has collaborated with other entities to reduce costs and extend the network farther in a series of smaller expansions.

Getting Public Facilities Connected

BTOP funds were used to connect 32 CAIs, and the county’s efforts connected 18 more to Garrett County’s network. In addition to libraries, municipal administrative facilities, and the county hospital, all but two county schools are connected. The network also connects other public facilities, including a senior center, a local college, and a career center. Town halls across the county are also on the network and there is fiber connecting several industrial parks. In addition to connecting CAIs and public entities to the network, the county deploys wide area networks (WANs) between facilities so the larger institutions with the right personnel can manage their own internal networks.

Garrett County took an opportunistic approach to significantly reduce costs as they connected more facilities and entities. They were able to save approximately $17,000 when connecting the Airport and Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Nathaniel Watkins, Garrett County CIO of the Department of Technology and Communications (DoTCOM), told us the County Road Department dug the trenches, installed conduit, and handled all the physical plant. “I’m really cheap,” said Watkins. He’s developed a talent for collaborating with other state and county entities and staying on top of current and future projects so he can to work with other departments to cut costs.

DoTCOM funds and leads many of the projects. Two entities located in the Grantsville Outreach Center contributed 50 percent of the fiber so they could both obtain fiber connectivity. For connections to two other locations, Watkins discovered that conduit already existed to the buildings as part of the original design. DoTCOM purchased special terminated fiber and connected the facilities “for pennies on the dollar.” Another project included funds budgeted for security camera installation. By connecting that fiber project to the larger network, Watkins extended the reach of the county network at no extra cost.

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Yet another project involved partnering with the state for an emergency services project that included a 700 Megahertz fiber/wireless project. Watkins’ department is “riding their coattails” and installing county fiber alongside state fiber in places where they consider it to be potentially advantageous for the future. This means no cost for trenching or burying fiber.

Ok for MOU

Garrett County has limited personnel needed to manage a fiber network. They choose to transfer ownership of public fiber to the state of Maryland and obtain a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The arrangement allows them access to the fiber without the financial burden of maintaining it; Garrett County only needs to employ one person to handle pole attachments, breaks, and other tasks. Because federal funds have paid for most of the asset and the county does not have the resources to dedicate to long-term maintenance, the system is right for them.

Better Services, Better Savings

In addition to providing connectivity by deploying the infrastructure to CAI’s, Watkins says that the county also operates as an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The benefit for customers, especially for county schools, has been two-fold: better connectivity and lower prices. When Garrett County Public Schools obtained service from large private providers, they paid a broad range of prices for many different speeds. 

Before the fiber deployment, most schools needed to lease T1 lines at an average of $400 per month per facility just to get 1.5 Mbps, in addition to paying $50 - $150 per month for Internet access. Each facility ended up paying up to $550 per month for very slow access.

Now, there are ten schools that connect to the fiber and that share the cost of single Internet connection, which is a little more than $800 per month, or about $80 per facility. That connection feeds into a central data center and provides 300 Mbps symmetrical service to the school district as a whole. Each facility then decides what speed they want to connect back to the main data system. Some choose 500 Mbps Internet access from the county for $750 per month while others purchase 250 Mbps for $500. For a nominal increase, the schools capacity now is blasting away what they used to obtain from old, outdated T1 lines. The federal program that reimburses schools for telecommunications expenses, E-rate, covers approximately 70 percent of telecommunications expenses in Garrett County. The symmetrical speeds allow fast, reliable communication between facilities and to the main Internet connection at the data center.

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Connected entities also saved significantly by switching from traditional telephone lines to VoIP. The Board of Education (BOE) in Garrett County has cut telephone expenses to $9 per month per phone for unlimited calling. The BOE’s facility alone is saving $10,000 per year. DoTCOM is slowly installing VoIP in other school facilities to expand on the savings. We’ve discovered similar savings in a number of places. In Austin, Texas, school officials estimate that they have saved millions by transitioning to the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN) for Internet and telephone services.

Free Wi-Fi Is Expanding

The county is able to use the network to provide backhaul for free Wi-Fi to several public locations, including the County Courthouse and the Airport in Oakland, the Department of Utilities, and all of the County Roads' Garages. DoTCOM provides free Wi-Fi at the Adventure Sports Center International, a nonprofit recreation center in McHenry. There are two parks that are set to receive free Wi-Fi and security camera coverage, courtesy of the fiber network. Watkins wants to expand free Wi-Fi to as many locations in Garrett County as possible as a community service.

Better Business Connections In Garrett?

The county does not routinely offer connectivity to businesses but does provide services to one medical facility simply because it needs speeds that are not available from any private providers. Without high-quality Internet access from the county, the facility in Oakland would not be able to connect its facilities, which need to send data-intensive medical records to other healthcare offices and to each other. The county is “trying not to step on the toes” of the private providers while also bringing affordable, reliable connectivity to CAIs, says Watkins. Nevertheless, they are well positioned if the time comes when more businesses seek out fast, affordable, reliable connectivity from an entity they feel they can trust.

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Next Project - Connecting Residents and Businesses

Garrett County has also started a new project to bring connectivity to some of the areas of the county where residents and businesses have the worst coverage or, in some cases, no Internet access at all. After years of study, they have determined that a fixed wireless solution will work best for them.

With their home-grown experience and proven strategy to cut costs through efficiency, Garrett County can certainly tackle their next challenge - ubiquitous Internet access in the far-west hills of Maryland.

For Rural Pinetops, Being A Gigabit Community Means Business In North Carolina

Unless you live in a rural community, you probably assume becoming a Gigabit community is all about the miracles of speed. Speed is important, but so is Internet choice, reliable service, and respectful customer service. It’s also about being excited as you consider future economic opportunities for your rural town.

Businesses Struggling With Old Services

Before Greenlight began serving Pinetops, the best community members could get was sluggish Centurylink DSL. Suzanne Coker Craig, owner of CuriosiTees, described the situation for her business:

Suzanne used to be a subscriber to Centurylink DSL service at her Pinetops home, but years ago she just turned it off. “We weren’t using it because it used to take forever; it just wasn’t viable.” She now has Greenlight’s 40 Mbps upstream and downstream service. “It’s just so very fast,” she said.

Her business, a custom screen printing shop, uses an “on-time” inventory system, so speed and reliability is critical for last-minute or late orders:

“We work with a Charlotte company for our apparel. If we get our order in by 5 p.m. from here, the next day it will be delivered. That’s really important for business.” Before Greenlight, Suzanne described how “We had been sweating it out.”  Suzanne’s tee-shirt store only had access to 800 Kbps DSL upload speed. She would talk to the modem. “Please upload by 5 p.m. Please upload.” Now she can just go home and put her order in at the last minute. “We are comfortable it will upload immediately….It’s just so much faster. Super fast…Having Greenlight has just been very beneficial for our business.” 

She also subscribes to Greenlight from home and her fiber connection is able to manage data intense uploads required for sending artwork, sales reports, and other large document transfers. As a Town Commissioner, Suzanne sees Greenlight service in Pinetops as more than just a chance to stop "sweating it out."

“I just see a brighter future for our town now,” she reflected. “It’s a neat selling point. It’s difficult in small rural areas to get good technology-based companies. This now opens the door for us to recruit just those kinds of businesses…It’s hard to imagine a business that does not need Internet access.” 

Without Reliability, Speed Is Nothing

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Brent Wooten is a sales agent and Manager for Mercer Transportation, a freight management business with an office in tiny, rural Pinetops, North Carolina. Pinetops is now served by Wilson’s community-owned, Gigabit fiber network, Greenlight.  Brent’s work, moving freight across the country via trucks, requires being on time; he’s an information worker in a knowledge economy.  “I am in the transportation business,” said Brent. “Having reliable phone and Internet are critical to running my businesses.” Being off line means losing businesses and never getting it back.

Before Greenlight came to town, Brent’s business paid Centurylink $425 per month for a few phone lines, long distance, an 800 number, and Internet access at 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.5 Mbps upload. He was also wasting hours and even days each month trying to get his Internet fixed. “Every time they would tell me the problem was my equipment. It was always my fault.” But Brent had an IT expert on hire. “Never once was the problem actually my equipment.” He described long waits to reach customer agents whose heavy foreign accents made communication difficult and about the company’s unresponsive office hours. “I was told they could send someone the next afternoon, but I needed the network to work now....”

Brent’s experience with Greenlight was the complete opposite. When Brent’s corporate office changed the location of their backup servers, Greenlight staff were helping him at 6:00 a.m. and at 10:00 p.m., and were on the phone within seconds of his call. “It is a very refreshing situation for me -- the consistency of service, and the responsive and respectful customer service by local workers.” 

Internet Choice

When Greenlight came to the community, Centurylink changed their tune. Within hours of his business phone being ported to Greenlight, a Centurylink representative called him. “He offered to cut my current prices in half and double my Internet speed, from 10 to 20 Mbps…My Centurylink 10 Mbps speed never tested at more than 6 Mbps.”

Brent chose to keep his Centurylink phone service, but he kept his 25 Mbps symmetrical Greenlight Internet service because upload speed is critical to his business. “My computer screens don’t freeze up anymore. Greenlight service is flawless. The sheer speed of fiber is amazing and they are available 24 hours a day, I am served by local workers, it is saving me money and I get better service.” 

Greenlight brought Brent residential telephone and internet choice for the first time in more than a decade. “Greenlight saves me $140 a month at home,” he bragged. When Greenlight’s marketing director first arrived at Brent’s house, he learned Brent was being charged twice for his internet service. Brent had an in-law suite attached to his house where his mother used to live. “The Centurylink representative on the phone said I needed to have a second DSL account.” Not with Greenlight.

An Odd Way Of Competing

Brent described how he had been a Centurylink residential customer since 1989. “When I called to cancel my home telephone service, the woman just gave me my confirmation number and told me to have a nice day.” No attempt was made to keep Brent’s residential business.  “They did the same thing on my mom’s phone line. She had telephone service since before 1968.” When she passed away, Brent called to disconnect her line. “The person on the other end of the line did not even offer condolences.” He compared that to the human touch that originates from a service company that is community owned: “Greenlight’s installers even cared enough about my welfare to tell me they had discovered a water leak under my house when doing the installation. They told me they would have tried to fix it for me but they did not have the right tools.”  

The Intangibles

How do you put a value on the intangibles?  For Brent Wooten, Greenlight fiber service has not only strengthened his ability to do business, but has given the community a sense of hope that didn’t exist before access to fiber.

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“As a citizen and Town Commissioner, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to have access to this service, and super excited about future opportunities that it will make available to us. It is an example of hometown people who care about serving you and bringing a higher quality of living to the community...It gives a sense of hope for Eastern North Carolina ... not just lip service.” 

Will It Last?

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the FCC ruling that permitted Greenlight to expand to its fiber-optic service to Pinetops. What this means for these businesses and residents who now rely on fast, affordable, reliable Internet access remains to be seen. Along with Suzanne, Brent, and the rest of Pinetops, we hope Greenlight is able to continue to serve this rural community. They are using fiber to reach for new economic development opportunities and in only a few months, the community of 1,300 is optimistic about a future with better connectivity.

New Braunfels Takes Next Step In Texas

At a recent City Council meeting, New Braunfels council members approved $57,000 in funding for Phase II of a study to explore the feasibility of constructing a city-owned fiber network. The city's Industrial Development Corporation (4B Board), which helps guide the city's economic development initiatives, previously recommended moving on to this next phase of the project. 

Because state laws in Texas prevent municipalities from offering retail telecommunications services, New Braunfels must advance carefully. The city is proceeding with the consultant's recommendation to pursue a public-private partnership (PPP) for the proposed network. With this second phase of the study, the consultant will help the city release a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit interest from would-be private Internet Service Providers (ISP) for the city-owned network.

Clarification from Christopher Mitchell: In Texas, the term telecommunications does not include Internet service. Communities cannot offer telephone service but are able to offer Internet only type services.

Some Findings from Phase I of the Feasibility Study

At a February 4B Board meeting, the New Braunfels Assistant City Manager Kristi Aday noted that the proposed network would cost the city somewhere in the range of $3 - $5 million. A major factor in determining the cost of the network, she said, is whether to use underground fiber for the network or to go with an aerial approach, using poles owned by New Braunfels Utilities.

The full feasibility study, presented at a special joint meeting between the City Council and the 4B Board in March, also reports the results of a survey in which 132 businesses in New Braunfels answered questions about their connectivity needs. According to the results of the survey, 78 percent of city businesses get their Internet service from AT&T DSL or coaxial cable Internet access from Time Warner Cable. Because both technologies rely on copper, many local businesses cannot obtain the high-quality Internet access required for daily operations.

Among the companies who responded, a full 81 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the limited speed and unreliability of their current Internet access. Consultants found that while 15 of the 5,600 companies in New Braunfels have paid to deploy fiber connections to their offices, more than 99 percent of the city’s businesses can't afford such an investment.

How Are We Supposed To Work This Way?

It was just a year ago when at the Texas Legislative Conference in New Braunfels, panelists were not able to take questions from remote attendees because the Internet connection at the Civic Convention Center hit a glitch. At the time, discussions of municipal Internet infrastructure had already started and local leaders understood the urgency:

“We have Texans from across the state here ... and we were dead in the water until 10 a.m.,” [Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Michael] Meek said. “That just heightens my awareness, and the awareness of others in the city, on why we’re doing this broadband initiative in town.”

He said the problem was with “the major Internet providers, which we continue to have problems with, whether it be the civic center or Wurstfest. Any business in town will tell you the same thing. That’s one of the reasons why the 4B Board and the chamber are jumping on top of this broadband initiative.”

Webpass and Its Fixed Wireless Seek Fix for Landlord Abuses - Community Broadband Bits Episode 197

San Francisco is one of the rare cities that has multiple high quality ISPs competing for market share, though the vast majority of people still seem to be stuck choosing only between Comcast and AT&T. This week, we talk to a rising ISP, Webpass, about their success and challenges in expanding their model. Charles Barr is the President of Webpass and Lauren Saine is a policy advisor - both join us for episode 197 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Webpass model, which uses fixed wireless and fiber to serve high density apartment buildings where they are allowed in by the landlord. Unfortunately, they have been locked out of many of these buildings and are looking to the city of San Francisco to adopt better policies to ensure a single provider like AT&T cannot monopolize the building. Though the FCC has made exclusive arrangement unenforceable, the big providers are still finding ways to lock out competition.

We also talk a little about the role of fiber and fixed wireless technologies, chokepoints more generally, and why Webpass is so sure it could succeed if residents were all able to to choose the ISP they wanted.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

More Feasibility Studies in Colorado and Ohio

Two more communities in Ohio and Colorado are seeking information through broadband feasibility studies.

The Aspen Daily News recently reported that Pitkin County has already completed phase one of its feasibility study. This past spring the primary Internet path coming into Aspen via CenturyLink fiber was severed causing widespread outage for 19 hours. The first half of the feasibility study sought ways to introduce a redundant path.

The first option was a 100 percent fiber solution and a hybrid fiber/microwave solution was proposed as an alternative. For option A, the consultants recommended a fiber backbone along Highway 82 with fiber lines running into Redstone, Marble, and Snowmass. Microwave could serve nearby Fryingpan Valley. Option B would travel the same route but make more use of microwave.

Early cost estimates:

Estimated operating costs for option A would be more than $122,000 per year, while option B would cost just over $92,000 annually. Yearly maintenance costs for the fiber-only model were projected at just under $62,000, and the hybrid model would run more than $123,000.

A survey or residents in several communities in Pitkin County indicated most are not happy with speeds or reliability of current Internet access. Approximately half of the region does not have broadband as defined by the FCC at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload

[One of the consultants] said that according to the survey, customer satisfaction in the area is “significantly low.” It also noted that 34 percent of responders said they run a business out of their home, and an additional 10 percent replied that they will start up an in-house business within the next three years.

Adams relayed that more than half of respondents felt that the county should build some sort of “state-of-the-art communications network.”

“It’s clear that the residents would like to see the county do something,” he said.

County Commissioners chose to instruct staff to pursue a $150,000 matching grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to help fund the second half of the feasibility study. The second phase ail focus on developing a financial plan and business models for a middle-mile network.

In Hancock County, Ohio, a collaborative effort between the county, the Findlay City Schools, and Findlay will investigate expanding a planned school fiber network.

The Courier reports that County Commissioners voted to hire a firm that will complete a study to create route plans, building entry sites, and project strategy. The Findlay and Hancock County governments hope to take advantage of the asset and connect government offices for more affordable, fast, and reliable voice, video, and data. There are 31 locations where the the city and county have indicated they would like to extend the fiber.

A local hospital is also expressed an interest in connecting its facilities, notes Martin White, Director of Information Technology at the Findlay City Schools.

Hancock County will contribute $7,894 toward the study and Findlay's share will be $8,855. The study should be complete in 5 weeks. Regardless of the outcome, the schools will deploy the network, reports the Courier:

White said the district plans to move forward with the project even if there is no other local interest. However, the fiber optics loop needed to connect Findlay schools puts the network within reach of city, county and hospital buildings, White said.

Schools can be jumping off points for wider I-Nets and even networks that extend out to business customers. In Ottawa, Kansas, the community built off a school fiber optic network to bring more affordable connectivity to a nearby college and an agricultural cooperative.

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

Missoula Releases Results of Broadband Feasibility Study

The culmination of more than a year of discussion, funding searches, vendor selection, and research, Missoula has released the results of its broadband feasibility study. The study’s final report makes a range of recommendations, highlighted by the urging to invest $10.5 million from various sources to construct an open access fiber optic network connecting local businesses and over 50 key anchor institutions. 

Beginning in early 2013, Missoula City and Missoula County governments collaborated with the Bitter Root Economic Development District to win a grant from the Montana’s Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, which they matched with local funds. The result was a $50,000 pot from which to finance the feasibility study.

The long-awaited final study results indicate a significant demand for affordable, reliable high speed connectivity in the Missoula area from both businesses and public institutions, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the central city. In a survey (page 31 of the report), a shocking 73% of Missoula businesses reported moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed. A further 38% said their connections were insufficient for their businesses needs, but the vast majority of those reported that they were unable to upgrade because the needed connections were either unavailable or the price was out of reach. 

The total cost of the network, which would include over 60 miles of fiber, is estimated to be just over $17 million. That figure is a conservative estimate, however, as it assumes 100% of the network would be built underground and minimal existing assets would be used or shared (neither of which is likely to be the case when all is said and done). 

The study recommends bringing in local anchor institutions as key network tenants, while making dark fiber available to third party service providers who can sell connections to local businesses, in what the Bitter Root Economic Development District refers to as a public-private partnership:

The proposed network would connect more than 50 public entities to each other including K-12 schools, the University of Montana, healthcare centers and city and county facilities.  Businesses could also take advantage of the network and what the study anticipates would be much more affordable pricing. The study recommends working in cooperation with Internet providers in a public-private partnership.

According to an article in the Missoulian, the local share of network costs would come not come from taxes:

As proposed, the city and county together would invest $10 million toward a $17 million system, with the local government funds leveraging other money, [Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin] Copple said. The local money would be paid through user fees, not taxes, and it would build roughly 60 miles of an “open access” fiber-optic network.

The report also made recommendations for outreach, education, and changes in city and county policy. Notably, it emphasized the need for “dig once” policies that ensure conduit is laid during unrelated construction projects and can be shared by different entities, eliminating the cost and disruption of tearing up streets multiple times to lay different lines. The report also recommended updating city and county building codes to account for broadband engineering requirements, as well as streamlining permitting processes and reducing fees for broadband projects. 

The last few years have seen a race among Montana cities to increase their communications infrastructure through a variety of methods. Butte recently debuted a limited private fiber optic network run by Fatbeam, spurred by long-term contracts with public and private anchor institutions. Bozeman, as we’ve reported, kicked off their own broadband feasibility study and planning process in July.  

High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community is a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

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According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

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In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

Cedar Falls Shows Long Term Muni Network Success: Community Broadband Bits Episode #75

Cedar Falls Utilities operates one of the oldest community owned networks in the nation. It started as a cable network in the 90's, upgraded to FTTH recently, and this year began offering the first citywide gigabit service in Iowa. CFU Communication Sales Manager Kent Halder and Network Services Manager Rob Houlihan join me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 75.

We discuss why Cedar Falls Utilities decided to add cable to their lineup originally and how it has achieved the incrediblely high take rates it maintains.

We also discuss the importance of reliability for municipal network and why they decided to transition directly to a FTTH plant rather than just upgraded to DOCSIS 3 on their cable system. Finally, we discuss its expansion into the rural areas just outside of town.

Read all of our coverage of Cedar Falls on MuniNetworks.org.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Small Minnesota Town, Annandale, Fed up With Slow DSL

Yet another Minnesota town is fed up with slow, unreliable Internet access and is examining what it can do to make sure it has the network it needs to succeed in the modern economy. Annandale is 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a population of 3,200 and has Windstream as the telephone company.

Windstream, as with other large firms that primarily serve rural America, offers a DSL more suited to the late 1990's than 2013. It has little capacity to invest in better networks, even if it had the willingness. We've covered Windstream several times in previous stories.

After a flood of complaints from residents to City Hall about slow speeds and frequent outages, the City issued a request for proposals for a feasibility study that will explore alternatives to the present reliance on Windstream.

Local leaders understand that the private sector is not likely to invest significantly in its community due to its density and rural location. But the town needs modern Internet access to retain and attract good jobs. The Annandale Advocate newspaper ran a story on September 17 but it is not available for non-subscribers.

At a chamber of commerce meeting later in the week Gunnarson added that strong broadband is a basic, essential feature of modern commerce.

"New businesses expect good Internet. When you buy a car you expect tires on it. Unfortunately, our car has wooden tires," he said.

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The same paper published a guest editorial by City Council members to explain how little power the City has over private providers. Many people falsely believe that towns are actively keeping competition out:

We even had some people angrily ask our staff why are we keeping the competition out. So to set the record straight, the city can't do much about it because it is all private wires, equipment, operations and corporate customer service.

Also, a recent call to the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission, confirms that not much can be done since broadband is not regulated. Sorry folks. As far as letting in competition, we have zero say in that. Any other provider can come in any time. In fact, many of us citizens would throw the welcome party.

If any provider believes it is being denying the right to offer service in Annandale, there is a legal process to rectify the situation. Since 1992, no local government has had the power to offer a cable monopoly and the same is true for telephone or Internet access since the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The problem is not local governments, it is the extremely high cost of building networks and the difficulty of competing with entrenched incumbents that can lower costs temporarily to deny subscribers to new networks.

Annandale has not committed to any specific course of action; it is gauging what opportunities are available and how a business model might work. And like most towns, they are leaving the door open to working with the incumbent:

Does our current provider still have an opportunity to be rock star in Annandale? They sure do. They just need to upgrade and make the city hall phone stop ringing.

A CBS Atlanta investigation has previously found that Windstream blatantly lies to consumers about their services.

CBS Atlanta News

Given Annandale's size, it is impractical to build a standalone triple-play FTTH network but it may find that an incremental fiber approach could work. Start with municipal facilities and businesses and expand to residents as necessary. Without a strong cable provider, most households probably already have a satellite TV service. This would leave open the possibility of doing an Internet and telephone double-play as Longmont, Colorado is doing. They could also partner with another network that wants to expand.

Regardless, you can expect the same big companies that refuse to invest in Annandale will publicly argue that the town should do nothing. But doing nothing is the best way to ensure nothing changes.