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Ammon's Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies

The city of Ammon, Idaho, is building the Internet network of the future. Households and businesses can instantly change Internet service providers using a specially-designed innovative portal. This short 20 minute video highlights how the network is saving money, creating competition for broadband services, and creating powerful new public safety applications.

We talk with Ammon's Mayor, local residents, private businesses, and the city's Technology Director to understand why a small conservative city decided to build its own network and then open it to the entire community. We explain how they financed it and even scratch the surface of how software-defined networking brought the future of Internet services to Ammon before any larger metro regions.

Ammon's network has already won awards, including a National Institute of Justice Challenge for Best Ultra-High Speed Application, and spurred economic development. But perhaps most important is that most communities can replicate this model and bring these benefits to their communities.

For more information, see our in-depth coverage on Ammon. Sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay informed on what local governments are doing to improve Internet access.

View the video below, or on YouTube here. Please share widely!

Mount Washington Voters Ready To Fund Muni

With only about 150 full-time residents, it’s hard to get the big ISPs to pay attention to you, especially when you are situated in forest-covered mountains. The people of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, realize that if they want high-quality connectivity, they have to do it themselves. At a special town meeting in May, voters unanimously approved funding for a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Flying Solo In Western Mass

Earlier this year, the small community obtained legal authority to move forward on the project without establishing a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). State law requires municipalities to establish an MLP as the public entity to administer a city’s publicly owned network. Mount Washington considered it an unnecessary and burdensome requirement for such a small community; the legislature agreed. Since they decided not to join the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish MLPs, they don't need one. 

Mount Washington officials released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the spring and received seven responses. The town selected a firm to construct the network, for which they have already set aside $250,000 from the town’s stabilization fund. At the May town meeting, voters approved an additional $450,000 in borrowing and selectmen are working with a financial advisor to review options.

Selectman Brian Tobin told the Berkshire Edge that the community expects to be eligible for funding from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI); town officials are talking with the agency. The state organization announced that it will be working closely with Massachusetts towns on a case-by-case basis to disburse approximately $50 million in sate funding to improve connectivity. 

“Mount Washington Is Ready To Go”

In February, Tobin predicted that voters would support the project and he was right. At the time, he said that even those that were content with satellite Internet access appreciated the increased property value benefit of an FTTH network.

Apparently, his confidence was not misplaced. From the Berkshire Edge article:

“I feel we’re really far ahead,” Tobin said, noting the initial “take rate,” or customers who have committed to the service, is 91 out of 145 houses. He said fiber optics will run past every home in town so residents who haven’t yet signed up can be added on anytime. “We’re building it for everybody who wants it. We have a self-sustainable project here.”

“Everyone who voted [at special town meeting], voted to do this,” Tobin said. “Pretty much everyone wants to move into the 21st century and have a high speed fiber optic network. That is encouraging.”

Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous MuniNetworks.org stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!

Muni In Muscatine: Upgrades, Speeds Up, Outperforms

Cedar Falls may be the Iowa city famous for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but that won’t stop Muscatine. This small city of approximately 29,000 people is about to upgrade its aging network. For a little over a year, the municipal utility, Muscatine Power and Water (MP&W), has planned for the move to FTTH with funding from an interdepartmental loan. Now, FTTH is coming to Muscatine's MachLink Internet access service.

MP&W expects to break ground this year on this $8.7 million FTTH project and to finish building the network in 2017. Fiber will offer speeds much faster than those available on the existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network. In anticipation, MP&W is increasing speeds for subcribers without raising rates.

More than a Year in the Making

The local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, has closely followed the story. In late November 2014, MP&W announced the planned FTTH upgrade. MP&W is taking a slow and steady approach and planning to complete the upgrade in 2017. The latest Muscatine Journal article from this March emphasized how the large infrastructure project has many "interlocking" pieces that must fit together to make the project successful.

As we reported when MP&W announced the upgrade in 2014, a FTTH network will achieve immediate goals and help achieve a number of benefits. MP&W wants to improve residential services, reduce maintenance costs, and increase network reliability. Upgrading to FTTH will also contribute to long-term goals, such as encouraging economic development. Fiber is a future-proof technology, adapting to the increasing need for bandwidth from households, businesses, and institutions. MachLink will offer speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second.

Outperforming Expectations

In the spirit of community, MP&W is increasing speeds without raising rates. MP&W announced that current customers will get twice the speed for no additional charge. Current MachLink subscribers with the fastest tier receive 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download which will double, but Gigabit speeds will dwarf even that. Upload speeds have yet to be determined.

It’s a good move as the TV and Internet services in Muscatine are continuing to grow in popularity. The communications division has outperformed already high expectations according to the Muscatine Journal this January:

“A profit of $1.25 million was budgeted for the Communications Utility for 2015, but actual profit was $1.79 million. For December, actual profit of $214,638 outperformed the budgeted $120,136.”

Without this public network, those dollars could have all gone to absentee-owned providers - who wouldn’t be investing money to improve the network. Also, it’s important to note that publicly owned networks do not actually make a “profit” to be distributed among shareholders, but rather extra revenue is reinvested in other community projects, used to improve the network, to pay down debt, or put in a rainy day fund. Publicly owned network "shareholders" are people who live and work in the community served by the network.

The FTTH network will make current services even better. As Beecher Sykes, MP&W manager of telecommunications, told the Muscatine Journal in March,

“(Fiber is) an extreme benefit not only to customers but the community as a whole.” 

Fairlawn Focuses on Citywide Gig Infrastructure - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 201

On the outskirts of Akron, just south of Cleveland, the community of Fairlawn is building a citywide wireless and fiber optic network using an interesting model. Most of the citywide municipal Internet networks in the U.S. have been built by communities with a municipal electric power company. Fairlawn has no such utility, not even a water utility. So they have partnered with another Ohio company, Extra Mile Fiber.

This week, Deputy Director of Public Service Ernie Staten joins us for episode 201 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss their approach and goals.

Fairlawn is building a carrier grade Wi-Fi and fiber-optic network, financed by municipal bonds. They will own the network and are focused first on generating benefits for the community and providing essential infrastructure rather than making sure every dollar of the network is repaid solely by revenues from network services. We also discuss how they structured the revenue-sharing arrangement with Extra Mile Fiber.

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

Valparaiso Embraces Dark Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 199

When Valparaiso, Indiana looked into solutions for a business that needed better Internet connectivity than incumbent providers were willing to reasonably provide, it quickly found that many businesses were lacking the access they needed. The market was broken; this wasn't an isolated incident.

Correction: Lisa misspeaks in the intro, saying Valparaiso is northeast of Chicago. It is southeast.

Valparaiso General Counsel & Economic Development Director Patrick Lyp joins us to discuss what Valparaiso is doing to ensure its businesses have the access they need in episode 199 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the need from local businesses and the dark fiber approach Valparaiso has started to encourage better choices in the ISP market. We also discuss the funding mechanism, which is tax-increment financing - a tool increasingly common in building dark fiber networks in Indiana.

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 25 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."

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

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 35 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."

Minnesota Public Officials at Home and In D.C.: Funding Rural High-Speed Internet

It’s getting to be a sad, repetitive tale: crappy Internet for rural populations. Minnesota public officials hope to change that. At both state and federal levels, they’re advocating for greater funding for rural high-speed Internet. 

They’ve proposed several ideas to fund rural connectivity. At the state level, Governor Mark Dayton is pushing to use $100 million of the Minnesota government budget surplus for rural broadband projects. In D.C., Congressman Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to provide funding for regional solutions, and Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on a bill for coordinating broadband installation and highway construction. Will any of these ideas work?

Minnesota Budget Surplus

Minnesota’s state government expects a $1.9 billion budget surplus, which presents an opportunity to fund large, one-time investments. The Star Tribune notes that such one-time investments in infrastructure, “especially when infrastructure is defined broadly to include roads, transit, public buildings and broadband capacity,” could prove a welcome idea. Fiber networks have high, up-front construction costs, but they offer next-generation, high-speed connectivity. Depending on what state leaders do, those high construction costs may no longer be a barrier.

With the news of the budget surplus, Governor Dayton renewed his call for $100 million (just 5% of the budget surplus) to improve broadband in rural Minnesota. Last spring, however, state legislators only approved about a tenth of that amount - around $10 million. The year before that, they had only put in $20 million. The money funds competitive grants in which companies and local governments match state dollars to build networks. Promising a “border to border broadband” approach, Dayton continues to push for funding for rural projects, but it is up to state legislators to determine what to do.

Ideas for Regional Solutions from D.C. 

Meanwhile in D.C., Congressmen Rick Nolan (D-MN), Jared Huffman (D-CA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Investment Act. Modeled after the process of rural electrification in the 1930s, the act increases broadband investment from the Rural Utility Service from $25 million to $50 million each year. The legislation reimagines how to promote regional solutions, including grants in addition to loans and loan guarantees. 

Minnesota DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar has come out in support of Congressman Nolan’s efforts. In December, she released an opinion piece describing how farming has become high-tech. Some farm-equipment companies describe how they encourage local farmers to go to restaurants or cafes to find high-speed Internet in order to do basic, necessary tasks. She is also working on a bipartisan bill right now to reduce the cost of building infrastructure through a “dig once” policy among state and federal agencies during highway construction.  

Remember Rural America

While these ideas are being debated and refined, we cannot forget that rural America - not just rural Minnesota - needs high-speed Internet. Minnesota Congressman Nolan explained:

“Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete - to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services to essential to our quality of life.”

Task Force in Rural Connecticut Explores Community’s Appetite for Fiber

The newly formed Utilities Task Force in the City of Redding, Connecticut, is exploring the potential of bringing fiber connectivity to this rural town of about 9,000 people. Redding is about 65 miles northeast of New York City and just 25 miles north of Stamford.

As part of their feasibility analysis, the task force sent a survey to residents and businesses to gauge interest in bringing a fiber network to Redding. While the analysis is still ongoing, task force board member Susan Clark expressed optimism. “I’ve been energized by how many people have shown interest in this,” Clark told the News Times.

The task force believes if the survey reveals strong interest in the community for the nascent project, private Internet providers would be more inclined to help the community build the network. Community leaders hope that a new fiber network would attract new residents such as “knowledge workers” who depend on reliable, highspeed Internet access that allows them to work from home.

A second member of the task force, Leon Kervelis, told the The Redding Pilot that the task force has hopes the proposed network, if built, could eventually grow beyond Redding: 

“It’s not intended to be a single town project…we’d get several towns together in a conglomerate, and that municipal conglomerate decides procedures and financing for the infrastructure,” he said.

Kervelis also explained the task force’s proposed plan for how to pay for the network, saying residents and businesses would pay a small surcharge on their property taxes, a far cry from current rates:

“The benefit would be significant,” he added. “Some people are already paying $120 a month to the cable company. Compared that to an [estimated] $10 to the town of Redding. For businesses and residents, this would drastically cut the cost of communicating rapidly and instantaneously. This would be a vast improvement over the services currently available in town.”

Clark said she originally got her inspiration to pursue a fiber optic network project in Redding after learning about the state’s CT Gig Project. The project involves “a coalition of municipalities, state officials, and other interested parties committed to bringing high-speed, low-cost internet to all residents and businesses in Connecticut.” 

We wrote about the development of the CT Gig Project in early 2015. For more information on the goals and current happenings with the CT Gig Project, you can visit their website here.

New Vermont Law Bolsters Prospects for Investing in Community Broadband Networks

A new state law is on the books in Vermont that supporters expect will encourage more investor activity supporting community broadband networks. 

The new law, which took effect this past June, allows for the creation of “communications union districts,” enabling towns and cities to band together to form geographic entities dedicated to establishing fiber-optic broadband networks for their area’s residents and businesses. 

A New Nomenclature

While Vermont towns have been able to work cooperatively via inter-local contracts, the new law is less cumbersome and uses a governmental nomenclature more familiar to most people—the union district. The union district governance model has been used for many years throughout Vermont, including by various utilities that have multi-town operations to handle, for example, sewer and water service.  

Carole Monroe; general manager of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (ECFiber), a consortium of 24 Vermont communities that have banded together to provide broadband service; told our Christopher Mitchell there isn’t much practical difference for her group operating now as the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District instead of by an inter-local contract.  

“But I can say that in the municipal investment markets, they’re much more familiar with the municipal utility district, whether it’s a water district or sewer district or something along those lines,” Monroe told Chris in a recent edition of Community Broadband Bits podcast. “A municipal utility district is a common language for them. Inter-local contracts, not so much.” 

ECFiber Grew From Inter-Local Contract 

Irvin Thomae, chairman of the EC Vermont Telecommunications District board, agreed. He noted that seven years ago the east central Vermont communities created ECFiber through an inter-local contract. “But this (the inter-local contract) was unfamiliar to investors beyond our state borders,” Thomae told us.

“We needed a structure more capable of being recognized by large institutional investors. It (the communications union district) makes it easier for community broadband networks to appeal more for large investors.”

Jerry Ward, an ECFiber delegate from Randolph Center, earlier in 2015 urged residents of his community to vote to approve the governance change to a telecommunications utility district. He predicted in an opinion article in The Herald of Randolph, the union district model will be a boon for ECFiber: 

“Most of the money we’ve raised until now has come in small multiples of $2,500. The governance structure allowed by a Telecommunications Municipal Utility District should help ECFiber attract larger investors at more favorable interest rates. We expect that reorganizing along the lines of a municipal utility district will make it significantly easier to borrow enough money to build out our network much more rapidly than the 50 miles/year we’ve averaged so far.”

During the past four years, ECFiber, under its inter-local contract, has borrowed more than $7 million from predominantly about 450 local investors, connecting nearly 1,200 customers in parts of about a dozen towns, along 200 road miles of fiber-optic cable. Its customers include residents, businesses and institutions. The vast majority of the 24 towns in the ECFiber district are communities of less than 2,000 residents with a handful boasting between 4,800 to 10,000 people. 

Ward noted thousands of other residents still don’t have access to high-speed Internet.  “The rate at which we (ECFiber) can grow depends almost entirely on capital,” he said.  EC Fiber became a communications union district shortly after Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the new law on June 1, 2015.

ECFiber offers latest Internet speeds

Currently, ECFiber offers the latest generation symmetrical Internet access and a choice of five speeds (from 7 Mbps to 400 Mbps) that do not vary by time of day or according to the weather - as well as phone service with unlimited long-distance calling in the U.S. and Canada, according to its website.

Under Vermont’s communications union districts, the member towns can help facilitate the broadband networks with obtaining easements from property owners along the fiber-optic cable routes, including putting up poles and laying conduit. ECFiber’s union district board is comprised of one delegate per town with each community also able to send one or two alternate delegates to the board’s monthly meeting. 

Under the new Vermont law, a communications union district, such as EC Vermont Telecommunications, isn’t allowed to assess taxes for the initiative. (Note: This was also true for ECFiber when it carried out its operations under its inter-local contract.) A communications union district’s revenue come from subscriber fees. Currently, the ECFiber district is generating about $125,000 a month in subscriber fees, Thomae told us. 

Currently, while ECFiber is the only communications union district in Vermont, Thomae said he has had a few inquiries from other people in the state asking about the new governance structure. 

Monroe said the creation of the ECFiber network has given people in Vermont’s rural east central region an alternative to DSL service, which usually is poor at best. For people not connected to a high quality network, fast and reliable Internet service also can be a problem because the East Central region’s mountainous terrain inhibits satellite service and reception from cell towers, she told us.