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In Rural Idaho, Co-op Delivers the Fiber

Co-op subscribers in Challis, Idaho are set to see faster speeds as Custer Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (CTCI) gained permission from city officials to install fiber-optic cable to local homes. With the member-owned telecommunications cooperative expanding its fiber optic network throughout Custer and Lemhi Counties, local residents will benefit from a future-proof network that promises higher speeds and low prices. 

How Did We Get Here?

The rural towns on the eastern side of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range are remote, sparsely populated, and mountainous - all factors which scare away investment from large Internet service providers (ISPs). Yet, they will witness construction of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, something that even their urban counterparts rarely see. CTCI, which has been delivering telecommunications services to the community since 1955, will provide 1,253 co-op members in Custer County and Lemhi County with high-quality Internet connectivity at competitive prices.

CTCI currently provides download speeds of 6-15 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps on its aging coax-copper network. Their initial goal is to achieve 100 Mbps on a 100 percent fiber-optic network, with speeds ultimately reaching 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) (or 1,000 Mbps). The co-op’s pricing chart currently lists a 100 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload fiber connection at $279.95/month. 

Federal Funds Point in the Right Direction

CTCI receives federal funding through the Universal Service Fund (USF), an FCC program designed to improve Internet connectivity in the rural U.S. CTCI’s receives the funding for operating expenses and investments because of the cooperative's contribution to the public benefit as stated in a 2012 report to the Universal Service Administrative Corporation (USAC):

“In light of Custer's longstanding record of outstanding past service, and its plans to continue upgrading, improving, and maintaining its network for the benefit of its customers, there is no doubt that Custer's status as an ETC [Eligible Telecommunications Carrier] is consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

As a member of Syringa Networks, a consortium of 12 Idaho networks, CTCI leases special access lines to community anchor institutions like hospitals, schools, and public land managers across Idaho. Together, USF funding and access charges amount to 45 percent of annual CTCI revenue. Subscriber Internet access accounts for 12 percent of total revenue. 

I-Net Beginning to Blossom in Greenfield, WI

Greenfield city officials and school administrators recently agreed to cooperatively build a fiber-optic institutional network (I-Net). The Milwaukee suburb of about 37,000 expects to trim thousands of dollars from its annual network bill and bring its students, teachers, and local government up to speed.

Dig Now, Save Now

Just like many communities across the U.S., Greenfield realized that it was paying too much to connect its community anchor institutions (CAIs) to the Internet. In April 2015, Greenfield school district approved a bandwidth upgrade with a private provider that would cost the schools $45,588 annually. Within half a year, they had already hit their new bandwidth limit. In November 2015, they needed to upgrade again to the tune of $119,141 per year. 

With classrooms and public institutions demanding increasingly higher bandwidth, local officials decided to ditch the incumbent providers to build a fast, affordable, reliable network in the coming semester. Their investment will allow them to make long-term budgeting decisions, direct more money toward classroom expenses, and use technology to offer rich educational experiences. 

Construction started in June on the fiber-optic network that will connect Greenfield school district, neighboring Whitnall school district, Alverno College, and Greenfield public safety buildings. With installation slated to finish by summer’s end, local institutions expect immediate savings. 

Financial Terms

The City of Greenfield, Greenfield School District, and Whitnall School District all applied for state trust fund loans through the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands of Wisconsin (BCPL). 

Michael Neitzke, Greenfield’s mayor, expects the town to repay it share - a $700,000 loan from BCPL - within 10 years thanks to annual telecommunications savings. The school districts anticipate even shorter repayment periods. Officials at Greenfield School District expect to pay off their loan within 4 years, according to Superintendent Lisa Elliot.  The School District of Whitnall authorized a $440,000 loan from BCPL with a 5-year repayment term at an interest rate of 2.5 percent. 

More Than Just Money

Greenfield hopes its network will impact the community beyond the balance sheet. In addition to blazing fast download speeds, fiber-optic networks feature faster upload speeds that shorten data transfer times, opening the door to a variety of indirect benefits for public safety and education. Greenfield Now quoted Nietzke, who said: 

“Benefiting most in local government are police and paramedics... Police especially depend heavily on getting data and lots of it. Based on the increasing need of law enforcement, an upgrade of this kind would have been made, anyway.”

The school districts are also excited for new possibilities. Greenfield and Whitnall will consider sharing the costs of virtual classrooms, where students in either district could attend classes via the Internet. Their partnership with the city will allow the school districts to save substantially on telecommunications costs; school officials can direct funds toward educating students, maintaining infrastructure, or other important necessities.

Ottawa, Kansas, and Monticello, Illinois, are two other communities where schools and local government have teamed up to save public dollars while simultaneously obtaining better connectivity. Schools can use federal E-rate funds to pay for the cost of Internet infrastructure investment, reducing the overall cost for deployment. Money saved by lowering telecommunications costs can later be re-invested. When a city strategically locates fiber-optic rings, they can later expand their network to serve other CAIs, businesses, or residents.

Regardless of how far Greenfield eventually takes their network, these first steps will result in significant cost reduction and a valuable publicly owned asset.

Glenwood Springs Shares Lessons Learned - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 206

Last week, while at my favorite regional broadband conference - Mountain Connect, I was asked to moderate a panel on municipal fiber projects in Colorado. You can watch it via the periscope video stream that was recorded. It was an excellent panel and led to this week's podcast, a discussion with Glenwood Springs Information Systems Director Bob Farmer.

Bob runs the Glenwood Springs Community Broadband Network, which has been operating for more than 10 years. It started with some fiber to anchor institutions and local businesses and a wireless overlay for residential access. Though the network started by offering open access, the city now provides services directly. We discuss the lessons learned.

Bob also discusses what cities should look for in people when staffing up for a community network project and some considerations when deciding who oversees the network. Finally, he shares some of the successes the network has had and what continues to inspire him after so many years of running the network.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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This show is 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Bridgewater State University Connects to OpenCape

CapeNet, the local Internet service provider, on the OpenCape community network is expanding in southeastern Massachusetts. Bridgewater State University will connect to the OpenCape network for more bandwidth and more reliable Internet access.

Connectivity for Education

Bridgewater State University needed to ensure reliable connectivity for its students because many university courses have online, cloud-based, or video components. In fact, nearly every school CapeNet serves requests more bandwidth each year, reports the Bridgewater Wicked Local.

Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Bridgewater State University, Raymond V. Lefebvre, summed up the importance of connectivity for education institutions: 

“We pursued this additional Internet bandwidth in support of teaching, research, collaboration, learning and our residence students.”

More Reliable, Higher Bandwidth

The university already has connectivity through another provider, but wanted a second fiber connection to ensure redundancy. Connecting to OpenCape not only increases bandwidth, but also improves reliability. The OpenCape network traverses an entirely different route than the university’s other fiber connection. 

If the first fiber connection fails (i.e. if the cable gets damaged or equipment goes down), students’ and professors’ work will not be interrupted thanks to the connection to the OpenCape network. The second connection will keep information flowing. Alan Davis, CEO of CapeNet, explained:

“Because the OpenCape Network has virtually unlimited capacity and was designed to eliminate single points of failure, it is a valuable tool for institutions like Bridgewater State.”

According to Lefebvre, Bridgewater also appreciates CapeNet's status as a local provider dedicated to working with public entities in the region. In March, we reported on CapeNet's upgrades at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, also connected via the OpenCape fiber network.

Sixth Annual SHLB Conference April 27 - 29 at Crystal City, VA

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) is hosting its sixth annual conference from April 27 - 29 at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, VA (near Reagan National Airport in Washington DC).

From the SHLB website:

Every year SHLB's Annual Conference attracts 200-300 people from across the country to discuss key broadband policy issues that are important to anchor institutions and their communities. This year's sixth Annual Conference will focus on E-rate Compliance, Lifeline Reform, Telehealth, and Fiber Build Out, as well as other policies and funding programs that will impact broadband deployment for anchor institutions and communities.

The conference officially kicks off at 12 p.m. noon on Wednesday, April 27th.

Notable plenary speakers at the conference will include US Senator Angus King (I-Maine) and Valerie Truesdale, the Chief Technology, Personalized Learning & Engagement Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. In addition, representatives from the Broadband Opportunities Council (BOC) will also participate on a lunch panel on the last day of the conference.

Senator King has been a strong proponent of universal broadband access and municipal broadband initiatives. Valerie Truesdale is an advocate for using improved access to broadband and other technologies to transform learning in schools. The Broadband Opportunities Council, established by President Obama, works to understand how the Executive Branch can support communities around the nation seeking to invest in local broadband networks.

The full list of conference speakers includes a link to information about each speaker. The complete conference agenda also provides information about the different sessions and workshops to be held throughout the three day conference.

You can register for the conference online at this link until April 25, 2016. Onsite conference registration will also be available beginning at 12:00pm on Wednesday April 27.

Prices for attending the conference vary depending on your registration type. The cost of registration onsite is an additional $100 for every registration type.

OpenCape Institutional User Sees Internet Speed Double

A major institutional customer on the OpenCape fiber optic network in the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts is now enjoying Internet access at double the speed. 

CapeCod.com reports that local CapeNet, the supplier of service over the OpenCape network, has doubled the Internet speed for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) from 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) to 2 Gbps. By switching to CapeNet as its primary provider, WHOI now also has the ability to expand up to 10 Gbps.

Previously, CapeNet provided 100 megabits to WHOI as a secondary provider, but the research and educational organization was interested in dramatically increasing its Internet capacity. In order to increase capacity, WHOI needed to make the switch to CapeNet.

CapeNet, the private provider that operates via the CapeNet fiber infrastructure, offers services across southeastern Massachusetts and to every town on the Cape. In addition to 150 institutional customers, the network connects businesses that handle large data, libraries, colleges, high schools, research facilities, municipal buildings, healthcare clinics, and public safety agencies. It is middle mile infrastructure, which means it links the Internet backbone to organizations and businesses that serve end users.

To become the primary broadband provider for WHOI, CapeNet installed additional equipment in Boston, Providence, and throughout the research campus. “It was actually quite a substantial undertaking in order to expand their capabilities,” said Alan Davis, chief executive officer of CapeNet.  

CapeNet On The Move...To Businesses and Residents?

CapeCod.com also reports that CapeNet is: 

...[C]ontinuing to expand services to educational institutions on the Cape. 

“We hope and expect that by the end of this year, certainly no later than next year, that we will actually be the primary provider of all the high schools on Cape Cod if not the middle schools and elementary schools as well,” said Davis.

The network will also be expanding fiber to 59 cell towers so a major mobile provider can expand coverage for customers in the area.

CapeNet recently announced that it would begin reaching out to residents and businesses in Falmouth, where the network serves 19 municipal facilities. OpenCape will soon host a survey on its website for local residents so the partners can obtain a better perspective on whether or not there is interest in the community. The results of the survey will determine if they move ahead with residential and business connectivity.

OpenCape History 

Started in mid-2013, the OpenCape is a 475-mile fiber-optic network serving more than 100 community anchor institutions in southeastern Massachusetts, the South Coast, and South Shore.  The middle-mile infrastructure was funded with a $32 million grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and about $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet.

Dan Gallagher, senior consultant to OpenCape Corp., and Davis wrote in an OpenCape blog last year: 

 “With the support and backing of the community, CapeNet and OpenCape are aggressively pursuing a broad range of funding sources to complete laterals and last-mile connections that will allow our region to unleash this great resource. Accomplishing this goal will allow OpenCape to fulfill its mission of improving the quality of life for the residents in our community.”

Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”

Steamboat Springs Gets a Grant for Fiber for the Future

Last we checked in with Steamboat Springs they had just finished a connectivity project. Now the community is taking another step to improve local connectivity in this northwest Colorado ski resort town.

The goal is to connect large community anchor institutions throughout town with a fiber backbone which could become the basis for a larger network. Several community anchor institutions have pooled their resources and pledged $748,000 while also securing a matching grant to install 9 miles of fiber across the small town of 12,000. Funding is in place, but the agreement between the institutions must be finalized before sending out an official request for proposals to find a company to install the fiber.

Matching Grants & Community Connectivity

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) intends to match the community’s contributions towards the project. DOLA will provide $748,000 in grant money for the fiber backbone. According to Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan in Steamboat Today, the fiber design will have splice points to allow a private providers to provide last-mile connectivity to residents’ homes and businesses from the fiber backbone.

So far, the large institutions pitching in for the 9 miles of fiber are: Routt County’s public safety complex, Yampa Valley Electric Association, the city of Steamboat Springs Mountain Fire Station, Yampa Valley Medical Center, Colorado Mountain College, and the Steamboat Springs School District. Several of these institutions had previously collaborated with the Northwest Colorado Broadband group and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association on the community's first connectivity project.

The Carrier Neutral Location

The first publicly owned project in Steamboat Springs was a Carrier Neutral Location (CNL). It's a space owned and maintained by a neutral party where providers can connect to each other to provide redundancy. It's especially useful for middle- and last-mile providers to connect to one another. The facility drives down the cost of bandwidth for community anchor institutions and service providers because they no longer require a separate facility for connections. Put another way, it aggregates the demand for bandwidth and leads to cost-savings.

In Steamboat Springs, the CNL is a room in a school district building. The CNL has allowed local anchor institutions to negotiate tenfold savings. For more information on CNLs, check out our podcast with Tim Miles, the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts.

Voting Matters

In November 2015, citizens opted out of SB152, a state law prohibiting local governments from developing municipal network to improve Internet connectivity. Without that vote, the latest project would not have become a reality due to the state barrier. Now Steamboat Springs has the option to continue developing its infrastructure for high-speed Internet for the whole community, including residents’ homes.

Why Schools Need Big Bandwidth - Community Broadband Bits Episode 186

The St Vrain Valley School District, north of Denver and including the Longmont area, is transitioning from a shared gigabit network to dedicated 10 Gbps links for schools. Just what does it do with all that bandwidth? School District Chief Technology Officer Joe McBreen tells us this week in Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 186.

We talk about why the need for so much bandwidth and the incredible savings the school district has received from the municipal fiber network. Additionally, we discuss how self-provisioning would have been the second more cost-effective solution, far better than leasing lines from an existing provider.

Toward the end of our conversation, we touch on how students get access in their homes and what any business or manager needs to do to be successful, regardless of what industry he or she is in.
See our other stories about Longmont here.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 24 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 can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.