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Colorado Conversation: New ILSR Podcast!

In early November, voters in 26 additional Colorado communities chose to opt out of SB 152. The state’s restrictive law took away local telecommunications authority in 2005. The results in many of the towns and counties were overwhelming majorities - loud and clear in favor of local authority. Now, 95 local communities across the state have reclaimed local authority.

We covered the election results in detail on MuniNetworks.org and what those results say about local communities’ desire for better connectivity. We spoke with local community leaders. As part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Building Local Power podcast, episode #5, Christopher and I also discussed what those results say about the desire to make connectivity choices at the local level.

Beyond Colorado...

In addition to Colorado, we also talked about local publicly owned networks in other parts of the nation and how they are changing the expectations for Internet users in urban and rural America.

We also discussed the general election results that brought Donald Trump to the presidency, specifically noting the impact that his ascension brings to local communities’ ability to provide Internet connectivity to their residents. We pondered the implications of a Trump presidency on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s mission of working across partisan lines in local communities.

We invite you to check out episode 5 of the Building Local Power podcast and check out other episodes, all highlighting the work we do at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Alford, MA, Releases RFP: Deadline Dec. 21

Alford, Massachusetts, located along the western border of Massachusetts, recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for fiber optic network design and contractors; the community wants to deploy a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network. Deadline for proposals is December 21, 2016.

A Long Journey To Now

Alford is home to approximately 500 residents and has pursued better connectivity since the early 2000s, when it first approached the incumbents. As is often the case, national providers continued to pass by Alford over the years leaving them with old, unreliable technology. During 2012 and 2013, the community took the necessary steps and voted to create a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), the entity that manages publicly owned networks in Massachusetts. Since then, they have formed a broadband committee, conducted surveys of local interest and requirements, and examined financial models. 

In 2015, the town approved a measure to borrow $1.6 million to cover the expenses to deploy a FTTP network. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state agency tasked with administering more than $71 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and state funds, informed the MLP Board that the town will receive approximately $290,000 in grants funds.

The Alford MLP’s November update reports that the community has made significant progress on make-ready work to prepare utility poles:

The MLP has now come to an agreement with Verizon and National Grid about the extent of “make-ready” work required to prepare the poles to accept fiber. In the next few weeks the MLP will make payments to the utilities, clearing the way for the work to begin. The MLP has no control over the timing of the work, which will probably begin around year- end and which can take up to six months to complete. 

The Project

Alford wants a network that is scalable and capable of offering high-speed connectivity and telephone service to each premise in the community. They estimate there are 734 utility poles on which to hang fiber-optic cable and that 22 miles of fiber-optic plant will be necessary. There are about 350 residential dwellings and 112 undeveloped lots in Alford, 17 miles of public roads, and 5 miles of private roads. The town encompasses about 12 square miles.

The municipal network will connect to the MassBroadband 123 middle mile network, the state owned infrastructure. Alford's plans must be consistent with MBI’s Last Mile Program Guidelines for Unserved Towns in order to be eligible for MBI funding.

Important Dates

  • Deadline for Submission of Questions: Friday, December 2, 2016  
  • Deadline for Receipt of Proposals: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 by 12:00 Noon 
  • Date for Bid Opening: Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 1:00 P.M.

You can read the entire RFP on Alford's MLP website.

Photo of the Alford Town Hall John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Short Policy Report on Munis and Education From ECS

Digital learning initiatives for K-12 grades and online coursework for college programs both require high-speed connectivity in school and at home. Policymakers cannot overlook this issue when discussing municipal networks.

The Education Commission of the States addressed connectivity in the classroom and at home in a short policy report, entitled Inhibiting Connection: State policy impacting expansion of municipal broadband networks in September 2016. 

Inside the Report

Co-authors Lauren Sisneros and Brian Sponsler provide an overview of how municipal network issues intersect with state education goals. The paper covers the major arguments for and against municipal networks as well as current state laws restricting those networks:

"As state education policymakers explore options to support postsecondary access and success, they may be well served to consider their states’ policy addressing municipal broadband networks."

They also highlight our Community Networks Initiative as a resource for policymakers to access fact sheets, case studies, and videos. 

Read the entire policy report on the Education Commission of the States' website

For more information on connectivity in schools in general, check out our Institutional Networks page.

Bozeman Fiber Breaks Through Phase One

Downtown Bozeman businesses can expect fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via the Bozeman Fiber network within the coming weeks, reports the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Phase one is now complete.

Businesses Up Next

Bozeman City offices, Gallatin County offices, and local public schools are already connected to the open access network, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit entity Bozeman Fiber. There are already three Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operating on the community network but local officials do not expect residents to have Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) Internet access just yet:

“Within a few hundred feet of where the fiber currently is will be available day one of commercial operations,” said Anthony Cochenour, president of the board of Bozeman Fiber. “As far as expanding the network and running under our own steam, (we want to) get business first, fill the coffers, then in years two and three make a bigger push into residential areas.”

Connecting to businesses first allows a community to test the waters, locate potential problems, and create interest in a community-based initiative. With the revenue generated by commercial customers and infrastructure deployed strategically throughout the community, it’s easier to expand to residential areas.

Standing On Its Own

In Bozeman, the $3.85 million in funding for the project came from local banks, so local officials feel especially compelled to create a self-sustaining and stable project. “While setting up Bozeman Fiber was important for economic development, we wanted it to be an agency that stands on its own. Bozeman Fiber is running its own show,” said [Bozeman economic development specialist David] Fine.

The Bozeman Fiber nonprofit plans to connect a local hospital in the near future and add another line west of town. They also hope to eventually host up to ten ISPs by the end of the year, increasing choice for consumers in the future.

Listen to Christopher visit with Brit Fontenot, Andy Cochenour, and David Fine during the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #142 from March 2015. They discussed the community’s early approach as they were beginning the journey toward better connectivity.

Community Fiber Network Diversifying Economy in Louisiana

Acadiana, the southern region of Louisiana, is seeing a resurgence of industry thanks in large part to it publicly owned fast, affordable, reliable network. Years ago, the city of Lafayette, Louisiana, built the LUS Fiber network to connect homes and business.

Now, LUS Fiber is helping to diversify Acadiana’s economy, which once almost exclusively relied on the oil industry. Fiber networks offer much potential for economic development. 

“The State of Business” in the Silicon Bayou

The October-November issue of the Acadiana Profile at MyNewOrleans.com ran an article on the changing landscape of Acadiana’s businesses. Author Kimberly Singletary provides an overview of three growing industries: technology, manufacturing, and healthcare. All three need access to reliable, high-speed connections.

Singletary spoke with One Acadiana, an economic development organization in Lafayette:

“We’ve had a long history of innovation in IT and software,” says Jason El Koubi, CEO of One Acadiana. “But it's still very much an emerging field.”

Due to what El Koubi describes as “almost a grassroots movement in cultivating IT over the years,” the Acadiana region enjoys a robust offering of internet services resulting in a competitive, cheap and extremely fast LUS Fiber network.

LUS Fiber offers affordable, high-speed connectivity to several software developers that have made Acadiana their new home. The network offers speeds of up to 2 Gigabits (2,000 Megabits per second). In 2014, LUS Fiber attracted three companies, bringing almost 1,000 jobs to the “Silicon Bayou.” Another company, Waitr, an Uber-like food delivery service, is planning to add an operations center to Lafayette, which will bring another 100 jobs to the community.

More Than Tech: Industries Need Connectivity

Better connectivity through municipal networks has also diversified other communities. For instance, the community network in Dublin, Ohio, helped attract Cardinal Health’s new research facility. Fiber connections are also important for manufacturing. In Chanute, Kansas, Spirit Aerosystems was attracted by the reliability of the city's community fiber network and built a new manufacturing facility.

Although the fiber network supports new opportunities, oil still contributes much to Acadiana’s economy. The energy sector accounts for nearly 45 percent of the local GDP (down from 72 percent in the 1970s). As Acadiana’s economy diversifies, those oil industry workers will not get left behind. Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority explained in Singletary’s article:

“The oil industry is so diverse, with so many sectors that range from manual labor to deeply technical jobs, and everything in between ... those skills can fortunately translate into other industries. These workers are very employable.”

Learn More About Lafayette

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Check out our 2012 report Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks, which tells the stories of Lafayette, Chattanooga, and Bristol, Virginia, where publicly owned networks have improved access, created economic development opportunity, and greatly enhanced the quality of life.

Christopher also spoke with Terry Huvall, Director of Lafayette Utilities System, in March 2015 about the network's expansion plans; that was episode #144 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Back in 2012, we also spoke with John St. Julien for episode #19 and episode #94. He was one of the leaders of the movement to educate the community about the benefits of a publicly owned network. John passed away earlier this year, but his work to educate the people of Lafayette is still available online.

Madison Starts Muni Fiber Effort, Considers Citywide Effort - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 227

The second-largest city in Wisconsin and the home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is pursuing a path-breaking municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) strategy. They have already started by deploying fiber to several low-income neighborhoods and working with local ISP ResTech to offer services.

Madison CIO Paul Kronberger joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 227 to discuss their plan. We start by discussing how they decided to deploy FTTH as a digital divide strategy. Like more and more of the communities considering this approach, Madison does not have a municipal electric utility.

We also discuss how Madison plans to deal with the state law that limits municipal fiber network investments and why Madison has decided to work with a private provider even though the city will retain ownership of the network. Read more of Madison coverage here.

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 18 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."

El Paso County, CO, Commissioner Urges "Yes" On Local Authority

This has been a “loud” general election. The candidates, the campaign ads, and the supporters have all blasted their messages to voters in every state, drowning out some initiatives that are equally important. In Colorado, 26 local governments are asking voters to decide whether or not to opt out of SB 152, the state’s restrictive law passed in 2005 that looted local telecommunications authority.

In addition to seven counties, 19 municipalities have the issue on the ballot. Most of them use similar language from years past, when dozens of Colorado local governments presented the same question to voters.

El Paso County

There are about 664,000 people in the county, with approximately 456,000 living in the county seat of Colorado Springs. Rural residents and businesses typically struggle to obtain Internet access. County Question 1A reads:

Without increasing taxes, shall El Paso County have the authority to provide, or to facilitate or partner or coordinate with service providers for the provision of, “advanced (high-speed internet) service,” “cable television service,” and “telecommunications service,” either directly, indirectly, or by contract, to residential, commercial, nonprofit, government or other subscribers, and to acquire, operate and maintain any facility for the purpose of providing such services, restoring local authority and flexibility that was taken away by Title 29, Article 27, Part 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes? 

Recently, El Paso County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Sallie Clarke published a guest column in the Colorado Springs Business Journal and the Gazette urging voters to support the measure. She noted that, even thought the initiative is important to the community, the local press has been quiet about the measure. With media filled by the Clinton/Trump race, there is little room for anything else, but she spells out why El Paso County needs to opt out of SB 152.

Staying Competitive

Clarke notes that dozens of other Colorado communities have already voted to opt out of SB 152. So far, 69 municipalities and counties have opted out. A few, including Longmont and Glenwood Springs, chose to opt out years ago and have already shown how to take advantage of publicly owned infrastructure to improve quality of life. Some, such as Centennial, are moving ahead with publicly owned infrastructure and partnerships with the private sector.

According to Clarke, El Paso County also has its sights set on working with private providers:

Initiative 1A permits, by public vote, an opt-out provision that allows commercial providers to tap into El Paso County’s existing or planned fiber and create partnership opportunities which are currently unavailable due to the restrictions imposed by state government. The measure restores local control over the future of our technology needs and resident accessibility, especially evident in today’s changing cyber world.

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She also notes that a “yes” vote can have ancillary benefits:

1A may also serve to lower the wholesale cost of broadband supply to commercial internet service providers, making it economically feasible for residential and commercial delivery and expansion of broadband services to more remote areas. It could make faster connections possible, improving business communications.

Collaboration And Opportunity

Clarke notes that several local communities in El Paso County and nearby Teller County are also voting on the opt out measure and considering ways to improve local connectivity. She writes that recent safety concerns have contributed to the county’s decision to ask voters to reclaim local authority:

Commissioners said, during the discussion on this initiative, that the lack of high-speed data and cellular communications were challenges during both the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. It just makes sense that if public entities are already building the “middle mile” infrastructure for public safety purposes, private companies should be able to use excess capacity to make it more efficient to extend broadband services. If those fiber optic lines to its facilities and those lines have excess capacity, it is more efficient for private providers to tie into those lines and build out service to homes and businesses.

Constituents in some rural areas of El Paso County have no Internet access because there is no middle mile close enough to make last mile investment worth their while. Like many of the other communities that voted to opt out of SB 152 in the past, El Paso County may not have solid plans in place, but they know they can't create those solid plans until after November 8th.

A “yes” vote on 1A is a vote for local partnership opportunities and incentives to provide high-speed Internet services for the benefit of our citizens.

Haunted Halloween Weekend: Broadband Trick Or Treat!

Are you spending the Halloween weekend watching scary movies on Netflix? Researching pagan rituals online? Scouring the web for last minute costume ideas? If you are don't have decent Internet access, even those simple tasks can be downright horrifying.

If you are trapped as a cable monopoly zombie, you understand the difference between Broadband Tricks or Treats. We created this graphic last year to celebrate the spooky differences between community networks and cable monopolies and it's too good to bury in a shallow grave! Here it is again...back from the (un)dead!

Trick or Treat - Subscriber reviews edition!

View a larger version of this graphic here [pdf]. Stay up to date on community networks with our newsletter!

Google Fiber Pauses - But No One Else Should

Google Fiber has finally announced its plans for the future after weeks of dramatic speculation that it will lay off half its workforce and give up on fiber-optics entirely. Google has now confirmed our expectations: they are pausing new Google Fiber cities, continuing to expand within those where they have a presence, and focusing on approaches that will offer a better return on investment in the short term.

Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy

In short, Google has found it more difficult than they anticipated to deploy rapidly and at low cost. And in discussions with various people, we think it can be summed up in this way: building fiber-optic networks is challenging and incumbents have an arsenal of dirty tricks to make it even more so, especially by slowing down access to poles.

That said, Google is not abandoning its efforts to drive better Internet access across the country. In the short term, people living in modern apartment buildings and condos will be the greatest beneficiary as Google takes the Webpass model and expands it to more cities. But those that hoped (or feared) Google would rapidly build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) across the country are likely disappointed (or slightly relieved, if they happen to be big incumbent providers). 

This is a good moment to talk about the lessons learned from Google Fiber and what we think communities should be thinking about. 

Let's start by noting something we have often said: Google Fiber and its larger "access" approach have been incredibly beneficial for everyone except the big monopolists. Its investments led to far more media coverage of Internet access issues and made local leaders better understand what would be possible after we dismantle the cable broadband monopoly. 

Benoit Felton, a sharp international telecommunications analyst wrote a very good summary of Google Fiber titled Salvaging Google Fiber's Achievements. Some of my thoughts below overlap his - but his piece touches on matters I won’t address, so please check out his analysis.

I want to focus on a few key points.

This is Not a Surprise

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Google is a private firm that has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns for its shareholders. More to the point, so is Alphabet, which houses Google Fiber. Google's interest in fiber was not solely pulling revenue out of the network in the same way that Comcast, AT&T, and others do. They wanted to maximize good Internet access to get more people to use the Internet more and thereby increase the value of their ad business. That is why they have been more consumer-friendly in many ways than the big cable and telephone companies. Google believes it wins even when it simply forces other providers to upgrade their networks.

The fact that they are now focused on doing that in a different way or changing the way they are driving network upgrades should not be surprising. Fiber-optic investments in single-family home neighborhoods can take many years to break even whereas using a hybrid fixed wireless and fiber strategy to target the tens of millions of people living in apartments and condos is likely to break even much quicker. 

That said, if One Touch Make-Ready policies succeed in Louisville and Nashville, I think we will see more Google Fiber investment in FTTH.

But Google is fundamentally a private firm focused on its shareholder value. And as such, it does not have the right incentives to deploy what has become essential infrastructure. Many of us have objected to the market-driven approach that tends to leave low-income areas behind. Nevertheless, Verizon and AT&T have left far more neighborhoods behind than Google. We believe universal access will be more difficult after market-driven approaches skim the cream out of our cities, leaving public funds to ensure everyone has access.

Fiber Remains A Good Municipal Investment

There is no wireless technology today that will cost-effectively deliver a high capacity connection to single-family homes that gives a deployer a technological advantage over modern cable systems (yes, we need better networks than cable networks offer). Google is not abandoning fiber in favor of wireless. It is changing its focus from near-citywide deployments to buildings with many tenants, where it can use both fiber and fixed wireless approaches to deliver service quickly. 

If anything, Google Fiber's change in focus reinforces the importance of smart municipal investments. That can mean a range of things, from Chattanooga or Lafayette approaches to Lincoln's conduit model to Ammon's software-defined network open access approach.

This is especially true in light of 5G wireless, which is still far on the horizon and will require fiber deep into neighborhoods - more fiber than the wireless carriers can easily deploy. Cities that make it easy for the wireless carriers to deploy small cells and connect it with affordable fiber will get these technologies faster and better than those that just wait for the private sector to do everything. Stay tuned to Broadband Bits for an upcoming podcast on how Lincoln has a brilliant model for that.

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Waiting Can Only Hurt You

Whether a community intends to offer services directly or simply to encourage more independent service providers, it is now clear that they need to take action. The "Google Lottery" is temporarily suspended. Get busy finding an approach that fits your needs and challenges.

This is especially true for cities that have real potential to meet their needs with smart local investments but have been waiting and waiting at the altar for Google - ahem, Palo Alto, Portland, and others. Stop dawdling and get serious. You have the capacity to do something. Get started.

Google may resume new FTTH build outs, and when it does - it will undoubtedly look more favorably on communities that have dark fiber, conduit, and other assets ready for them. And if Google remains paused much longer, then you will have created assets to use for your own deployment or for attracting a different partner. 

Speaking of a different partner, Elliot Noss of Ting reminded me that Google can play around with autonomous cars and artificial intelligence in a big way today. Since they launched fiber, the opportunity cost of using their capital has changed significantly. Compared to the potential returns for deploying fiber to single family homes, A.I., and the potential to control all future vehicular movement seems more lucrative.

Once again paraphrasing Elliot, one of the core talents of an ISP should be dealing with people - from installers to customer service. This is not a core area for Google. Google's engineers have done a stunning job creating their technologies - especially the DVR system. But being a competitive ISP is not just technology - it is interacting with your subscribers.

While Google may be in a pause, Ting is excited to keep moving on. Travis Carter of US Internet in Minneapolis can't wait to lay more fiber next year (winter is about to slow his deployment up here); they see nothing but potential in coming years.

Wireless Is Not Killing Fiber

I want to be especially clear. Companies like AT&T and Verizon love stories about how fiber is too expensive or uneconomic. They have a customer base to protect from competition. They are thrilled when they can scare potential investors in fiber networks.

5G is not magic and won't meet all of our needs. When I started working in this industry 10 years ago, I was told that Wi-Fi obviated the need for fiber. WRONG. But then, I was told that fiber wasn't necessary because WiMax would meet all our needs. WRONG. And then it didn't take long before fiber was supposedly unnecessary because 4G LTE was going to do everything except solve world hunger. WRONG. 4G remains a complement to fiber, not a substitute.

When I talk to people that have only 4G and not a wired service in their homes, they usually complain - whether it is the cost, reliability, or some other factor. And when you look closer at 5G, it is clear that FTTH continues to be a smart investment. And when building a FTTH network, you have an opportunity to lease fiber to those deploying 5G, another revenue source.

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Google is not scared of the possibility of 5G making fiber uneconomic. Google is frustrated at the pace of deployment because both pole owners and the networks already attached to utility poles can dramatically slow critical access to those poles by using every day of their allotted time to make a pole ready for a new attacher. 

This is not about city permitting - we have once again seen that even when cities bend over backwards to ease deployment access, it is the incumbent providers that continue to be the biggest barriers to new investment (this reinforces a CTC report that communities could reduce outside plant costs by 8 percent at most). There is just no way getting around the mismatch between private sector business models and the need for critical infrastructure. It is capital-intensive and offers a slow return, especially when done correctly.

The Private Sector Needs You

The private sector, Google included, simply cannot solve this problem alone but cities can change the calculus. Phil Dampier agrees. Blair Levin has been making this case for years - see the Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook [pdf], for instance. But take care with those that are too focused on private investment. Cities need to be very careful in partnerships and should not rely too much on the private sector - our report offers suggestions for how to get the right balance.

Google is taking a pause, but it should be a kick in the pants for the rest of us. Time to get busy building the infrastructure of tomorrow - because some cities already have it today and we don't want to let them have all the fun.

Fresno Looking For Partners: RFQ Responses Due Nov. 30th

Fresno, California, is looking for one or more partners to bring Gigabit connectivity to the entire community. City leaders recently released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to send out the call for interested entities. Letters of interest are due on November 14th and statements of qualifications are due by November 30th.

Leaving No One Behind

According to the RFQ, the community is experiencing growth in the tech sector and want to support the tide by improving Internet infrastructure throughout the community. In addition to serving new businesses for economic development, the network will connect community anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries. 

As part of their goals, Fresno states explicitly that they want to ensure low-income families and individuals will be able to afford high-quality Internet access. In an article in the Fresno Bee, city leaders sate that they envision rates for some residents at around $10 per month for either a wired or fixed wireless connection.

Using Existing Assets

Chief Information Officer Bryon Horn says that the city has approximately 90 miles of fiber in place in the northeast, northwest, and southeast regions of town for traffic control. The southwest area of town, however, is plagued by gaps in service. In the RFQ, the city suggests that any solution could use and expand on the existing publicly owned fiber. An increasing number of communities are taking advantage of the extra capacity available in fiber installed for traffic light synchronization. Aurora, Illinois, used its traffic fiber as a starting point to build out OnLight Aurora. More recently, Centennial, Colorado, is encompassing its traffic-related fiber-optic network into a project that will allow the city to partner with Ting for Gigabit connectivity to the community.

Fresno also has dig once policies in place and 104 miles of telecommunications conduit that can be used for the project, which will facilitate any project.

Fresno

Approximately 520,000 people live in Fresno, and city leaders estimate the population will grow by about 7 percent within the next five years. It is more than 112 square miles in the San Joaquin Valley where there is a $26 billion agricultural industry. Even though much of our country's food grows there, it is also one of America’s fastest growing tech job centers. Both sectors of the economy are increasingly dependent on high-speed connectivity.

Along with large employers, the school district serves 73,000 students, more than 11,000 employees, in 97 schools. They recently launched a technology initiative. Higher education in Fresno supports more than 80,000 students at California State University and four other community college and universities.

One Of Several Investments

According to the RFQ, the proposed investment in better connectivity it one of several community improvements. They are also developing several public transportation projects and a water infrastructure project to make the city “drought-proof.”

Read the RFQ at the city website.