Stark County, Ohio's Fourth Utility: Feasibility Study Complete

The results of a study are in and its authors recommend Stark County invest in a regional middle mile fiber-optic network, establish a broadband authority, and take other significant steps to keep the county from falling behind in today’s economy.

The Fourth Utility

The county has relied heavily on manufacturing and retail in the past but as those opportunities dry up, young people are moving away and the future is in jeopardy. Healthcare is another strong industry in the region, but access to high-quality connections is now a must-have for hospitals and clinics. Elected officials also recognize that diversifying the local economy to lure companies that offer higher paying positions will bring new blood to Stark County.

In order to attract new commerce to Stark County, Ohio, they formed a Broadband Task Team (SCBBTT) in the fall of 2014. They have adhered to the philosophy that connectivity is a “fourth utility” and should be treated like electricity, water, gas, or sewer systems. In May, the SCBBTT hired a consultant to perform a feasibility study; the firm presented its findings and recommendations on October 12th.

Consultants Offer Results, Recommendations

Consultants analyzed the amount of fiber in the county and reviewed the state of connectivity for businesses and residents and found both lacking.

Incumbents include local provider MCTV, which offers cable TV, Internet access, and phone services over its coaxial fiber network. Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable assets in the area, and AT&T offer cable and DSL but the feasibility revealed that there is very little fiber connectivity for residents or businesses.

They recommend that the county employ a six-pronged approach:

  • Formalized Broadband-Friendly Policies and Standards
  • Develop a Carrier-Neutral Middle-Mile Fiber-Optic Backbone
  • Expand Connections to Regional Data Centers
  • Equip Economic Development Areas with Fiber Connectivity
  • Target Businesses in Close Proximity to Fiber Backbone
  • Develop Last-Mile Investment Framework to Facilitate Development of Retail Residential and Business Services

Their estimate of the cost for the proposed 130-mile backbone is approximately $22.5 million and would connect 140 community anchor institutions. Design of the network should also put fiber within 1,000 feet of more than 8,000 businesses to facilitate later expansion. The consultants estimate the project would pay for itself in 15 years and after 10 years would generate $5 million in revenue annually. After 20 years, the project should be generating approximately $22 million per year.

Middle Mile Strategy

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The consulting firm propose the middle mile strategy as a way for local communities within Stark County to establish their own fiber initiatives. Municipalities could use the county infrastructure to connect to any of three data centers within the region. According to the Executive Summary, analysts calculated that the SCBBTT vision to connect every property with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the county in one swoop was out of reach. From the report:

A $330 - $400 million investment to buildout a FTTP network throughout Stark County is unlikely at this point due to economic conditions and political will, however, a measured, strategic approach to making incremental investments in the County are likely to be supported if an actionable roadmap is clearly delivered. 

Waits For No One

The county of about 376,000 people is located in east central Ohio; Canton is the county seat. Fifteen percent of the county’s residents live at or below the poverty rate, above the national average of national average of 13.5 percent. More than 18 percent of the population is over the age of 65, also higher than the national average. Elected officials have seen both those numbers on the steady incline in recent years.

"We can't afford not to do this," [Stark County Commissioner Richard] Regula said. He believes that county commissioners should review the proposals and take the lead on the project.

Jackie DeGarmo, co-chair of the task team, said local leaders must decide if they have the "political will" to move forward with the plan. There's a need to create a broadband authority, she said. "A digital world is not going to wait for us."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 17

Connecticut

At least one state has a (fiber) backbone by Susan Crawford, Medium

 

Massachusetts

Susan Crawford makes the case for the Responsive Communities Initiative by Gretchen Weber, Harvard Law Today

 

New Hampshire

Broadband: A story of capacity and speed by Abby Kesller, Monadnock Ledger Transcript

 

North Carolina

Report calls for end of N.C. broadband restrictions by Tim Marema, The Daily Yonder

North Carolina’s small-city and rural residents could be a lot further along in adopting higher-capacity broadband at home if the state would ease laws that restrict phone and power cooperatives’ participation in the internet business, according to a new report.

 

New Mexico

One small college tackles the growing digital divide by Leah Todd, Santa Fe New Mexican

 

New York

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4 Westchester cities join forces to bring ultra-high broadband to county by Michael Poyton, New Rochelle Patch

 

Oregon

Eugene spending $4 million to improve downtown fier network, Internet access by Elon Glucklich, Eugene Register-Guard

 

Virginia

Augusta Co. to hold public meeting about Internet initiative by Clarissa Cooper, Staunton News Leader

 

General

Connected Nation Exchange/Macquarie Capital Partnership targets municipal broadband by Telecompetitor

Big cable isn't happy about the FCC's plan to protect consumer privacy by Sam Gustin, Motherboard Vice

Photo of the Highlander calf courtesy of robertobarresi via Pixaby.

CO Editors Want A "Yes": It's Only Logical

As Election Day approaches, people in a number of Colorado communities will be addressing special ballot questions on local telecommunications authority. Editors of the local news source, the Journal, encourage voters in Montezuma County and Dolores to opt out of harmful SB 152 and reclaim authority taken away in 2005.

“That Industry Has Had Its Chance”

According to editors at the Journal, SB 152 may have sounded like a good thing to legislators in 2005, but big corporate providers have not lived up to promises to bring high-quality connectivity to rural Colorado:

More than a decade later, that industry has had its chance. Internet providers have cherry-picked the lucrative markets and left small communities and even more sparsely populated rural areas with substandard Internet services that are far from high speed. Now it is time for the public sector to step out from under SB 152 restrictions.

By our last count, 26 towns and counties will offer voters the choice to opt out, but we may discover more as we continue to research before Election Day. The communities who choose to vote on the measure don’t necessarily have solid plans to invest in Internet access infrastructure, but if they want to work with a private sector partner or on their own, they must first hold a referendum. 

It's Logical

As Election Day approaches, we anticipate more editorials expressing support; local communities are tired of waiting for better connectivity. As stated by the editors here:

Ballot issues 1A and 2A, respectively, allow local governments to investigate the feasibility of providing broadband services as a public utility or as part of a public-private partnership with taxpayer support for infrastructure.

That is logical, because most of us think of the Internet exactly as an essential utility, right along with electricity, gas and water.

The need is obvious. County voters, vote “yes.” Dolores voters, check the “yes” boxes on both 1A and 2A.

Free Internet Access For Salt Lake City Low-Income Housing, Other Google Fiber Cities

Residents of Salt Lake City’s Lorna Doone Properties will be enjoying Internet speeds of up to one gigabit for no cost, thanks to a partnership between Google Fiber and the Utah Nonprofit Housing Corporation (UNHC). In July 2015, the company announced that the Google Fiber Gigabit Communities program would bring free access to select low-income housing locations throughout cities within their service areas, and the residents of Lorna Doone are newest to this list. 

Google will supply Internet access and UNHC has a computer rental program, which is in part supplied by the local business community. In addition, the City of Salt Lake has helped to fund mobile computer labs to bring more low-income households online.

Internet access is vital not only for entertainment, but more importantly for completing homework, keeping up with the news, and participating in the digital economy. "We do not have cable television or anything, so it's a way that we stay connected,” Kelli Nicholas, a Lorna Doone resident said during Google Fiber’s launch event. "I read about our current events online, my son and I do homework things… [Google Fiber will] allow people who weren’t able to connect, to connect with one another.”

Aside from providing Internet access in the Lorna Doone apartments, Google has partnered with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome program to provide gigabit service to public housing projects. A Google Fiber blog post announced the partnership:

“The web is where we go to connect with people, learn new subjects, and find opportunities for personal and economic growth. But not everyone benefits from all the web has to offer. As many as 26% of households earning less than $30,000 per year don’t access the Internet, compared to just 3% of adults with annual incomes over $75,000. Google Fiber is working to change that.”

Check out local video coverage of the launch event:

Duck River Co-op Considering Rural Fiber Future

Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) in Tennessee announced in September that it has launched a feasibility study to investigate ways to use a proposed fiber-optic network to bring better connectivity to members.

Exploring Added Value

According to the announcement, DREMC is considering investing in a fiber-optic loop to improve communications between its offices and substations. DREMC recognizes that this initial investment can be a first prudent step in considering the future of the cooperative and the vitality of rural Tennessee:

A fiber-optic loop has been proposed to connect all offices and substations, including the co-op’s emergency operations center. This project could also provide capacity for community purposes: fiber that could be leased to other parties, even Internet-to-home providers.

The broadband feasibility study will explore how the proposed fiber-optic loop might help improve connectivity in rural areas served by DREMC.

Within The Confines Of The Law

In Tennessee, electric cooperatives are prohibited from providing Internet access to residents, but DREMC still wants to use its publicly owned infrastructure for the benefit of members.

DREMC serves the areas south of Nashville. Columbia and Tullahoma are some of the more densely populated areas and have their own electric utilities, which also provide Gigabit connectivity. Rural areas outside of the cities rely on cooperatives like DREMC for electricity; the state restrictions will keep those communities in that last century for Internet access because national providers have no desire to serve them. 

From the announcement:

“This is a first but very important step,” says DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson.

“Today, so much depends on connectivity. Economic development, job creation and retention, healthcare, education, and public service are all enhanced by access to broadband Internet. But many rural households and communities do not have the connectivity they need.”

Watson describes the situation as very similar to the mid-1930s when electric cooperatives were created to bring central station power to rural America.

“Co-ops found ways to build power distribution systems at lower cost, using a non-profit business model based on member ownership, local control, innovation and dedication to community. We believe the same cooperative principles might be applied today to solve the broadband connectivity problem in southern Middle Tennessee,” he says.

Action In The State Capitol?

There is a faction of Tennessee legislators pursuing changes in state laws to improve local connectivity. Those changes focus on municipal network restrictions, but laws for cooperatives could be close behind. By investing in the infrastructure, DREMC is cleverly positioned to either lease to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or offer services directly if the law changes in the future.

Update on Utah's Open Access UTOPIA - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 223

In the north central region of Utah, eleven communities are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network operated by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency or UTOPIA. UTOPIA’s Executive Director, Roger Timmerman, and Mayor Karen Cronin from member community, Perry City, take time to speak with us for Community Broadband Bits episode 223.

One of the great advantages UTOPIA has brought the region is the element of competition. Rather than facing a choice of only one or two Internet Service Providers like most of us, people in UTOPIA cities sign up for a connection to the network and then choose from multiple providers who offer a range of services via the infrastructure. Competing for business brings better products, better prices, and better customer service.

Since launching in 2004, UTOPIA has faced financial uncertainties created by onerous state laws that force a wholesale model on publicly owned networks. Regardless, Mayor Cronin has seen the network improve connectivity in her community, which has improved the local economy and the quality of life. After working with the network since the early days, Roger sees that UTOPIA’s situation is on the upswing but has witnessed firsthand how those harmful state laws limiting local authority can put a smart investment like UTOPIA in harm’s way.

Read the transcript of the 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 mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Authors Discuss NC Report On PRX

We have extensively studied the connectivity situation in North Carolina and just released our report, “North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Now you can hear from the report authors, H.R. Trostle and Christopher Mitchell, in our most recent PRX coverage.

We spoke with both authors who gave us a recap of the situation in urban and rural North Carolina. They explained how they examined the data and came to the conclusion that, while urban areas are served relatively well by big private providers, the same cannot be said in rural areas. Unless a muni or rural telephone or electric cooperative offers Internet access in a rural region, odds are rural residents and businesses just don’t have access to FCC defined broadband speeds. Audio coverage runs 5:22.

Listen to the story on PRX…

You can also download the report to dig into the details and learn more about connectivity in North Carolina.

Loveland On The Trail Of Better Connectivity

Loveland, Colorado, was one of nearly 50 communities that voted to opt out of SB 152 last fall. Ten months later, they are working with a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to assess current infrastructure and determine how best to improve connectivity for businesses and residents.

Examining Assets, Analyzing Options

According to the Request for Proposals (RFP) released in April, the city has some of its own fiber that’s used for traffic control. Loveland also uses the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) fiber network but wants to enhance service all over the community, focusing on economic development, education, public safety, healthcare, and “overall quality of life.” Community leaders also want recommendations on which policies would encourage more and better service throughout Loveland.

The city has its own electric, water, sewer, wastewater, and solid waste utilities, so is no stranger on operating essential utilities. Approximately 69,000 people live in the community located in the southeast corner of the state.

They want a network that will provide Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second or Mbps) connectivity on both download and upload (symmetrical) and 10 Gigabit (Gbps) symmetrical connections for businesses and other entities. The network needs to be scalable so it can grow with the community and its needs. Reliability, affordability, and inclusivity are other requirements in Loveland.

Loveland began the process this summer by asking residents and businesses to respond to an online survey. The city will consider all forms of business models from dark fiber to publicly owned retail to open access and public-private partnerships (P3). They should have results by early in 2017, according to the Broadband Initiative Calendar.

Staying Competitive

Fort Collins is just north of Loveland and the two communities continue to expand toward each other. Fort Collins is also taking steps to improve connectivity for residents, businesses, and local government. Just west of Loveland is Estes Park, where the town's broadband initiative is underway and has secured approximately $1.3 million from the state Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). Estes Park will use the funds for engineering design of a broadband utility. With these two adjacent communities taking steps to improve connectivity, Loveland has little choice but to do the same to stay competitive.

Things Are Rockin' In Colorado

We expect to see more activity this election season in Colorado; by last count, 22 towns and counties will hold ballot initiatives to opt out of SB 152. These communities are joining the growing list from the Centennial State who want to reclaim local authority looted by the state legislature 11 years ago when it passed SB 152. Many of these communities don’t have plans in place for projects, but they want the right to make their own decisions.

If the legislature would repeal the state restrictions, local communities would not need to waste taxpayer dollars with expensive referendums that typically pass in the 70 - 90 percent range. Towns and counties in Colorado, however, are not waiting for Denver to act; they are taking matters into their own hands.

North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
Author(s): 
H. R. Trostle
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.

Download the Report

The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.

The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers. 

In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.

"It's not as if these communities have a choice as to what they're able to do to improve their Internet service," says report co-author Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There's a demonstrated need for high-quality Internet service in rural North Carolina, but the state literally refuses to let people help themselves."

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks. You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

From The Report:

  • Despite significant tax subsidies from the state and federal government, North Carolina's private providers are building their fiber-optic networks only in certain metro areas and none in rural regions.
  • Only 12 percent of North Carolina's rural population has a choice for their broadband access, the rest are stuck with only one option and no control over their Internet prospects.
  • All of North Carolina's telephone cooperatives are investing in fiber for members in their service territory, some have entirely replaced their copper lines with fiber-optic. 
  • While North Carolina has 26 electric cooperatives capable of bringing fiber-to-the-home to rural residents, a 1999 state law (N.C. Gen. Stat § 117-18.1) limits the co-ops' access to capital for telecommunications projects.

Download the Report

Lakeland, Florida, Takes Small Steps

This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.

Too Much For Lakeland?

Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.

In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:

“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.

Pilot Won't Fly

One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:

“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.

He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”

While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:

“For most of us there is not a philosophical problem with expanding utilities. This is a utility; we can pretty well justify it ... (and) when you look at the revenue possibility down the road to replace the hospital it makes good governmental sense,” [Mayor Howard] Wiggs said.

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But incumbent providers are not obligated to play nice with new competition, Wiggs said, and he worried an operation like Charter Communications could severely drop prices and erode the city’s market edge.

Not A Total Loss

While Commissioners chose not to pursue the municipal network plan, they did support a number of items intended to encourage better connectivity in Lakeland:

  • It will submit a bid for supplying internet access to Polk County schools when its current contract expires with the goal of making money from existing assets while reducing the cost of the School District’s services.
  • To address the “digital divide” between rich and poor, Lakeland will consider expanding its free wireless service, SurfLakeland, into neighborhoods. The service is currently available in municipal buildings and in Munn Park.
  • Wiggs recently made a pitch to other municipal leaders in Polk County to join forces in encouraging broadband expansion throughout the county.
  • The city will continue its “dig once” policy for all infrastructure work — that when roads are closed and crews dispatched for underground utility work, conduit that could be used for fiber optics is put in place.
  • The city’s “dark fiber” network, which provides intra-city connections for companies and organizations with multiple facilities, will be more actively marketed. Currently the program generates about $4 million each year.
  • The city will also look at fees and licensing costs to determine if they are discouraging private investment.

The Lakeland Regional Airport will deploy its own fiber infrastructure and will offer Internet access to tenants. The project had been considered as a business pilot and, according to the article, costs are now going to be covered in part with federal and state grants specifically earmarked for airports.

Citizens Want Action

Gigabit Lakeland, the grassroots organization advocating for a municipal network, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Shane Mahoney, one of the group’s leaders, talked to the Ledger:

A partnership with a private provider has not been his favored outcome, Mahoney said, but his group intends to continue pressuring the city toward better internet infrastructure in the city, particularly for residents who do not have quality access because of price or location.