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Rural Tennessee Economy: Digital Divide, Connectivity Chasm

Rural folks without fast, affordable, reliable Internet access face challenges with common tasks such as doing homework, completing college courses, or running a small business. Although Tennessee has an entrepreneurial spirit, a large swath of the state's rural residents and businesses don't have the connectivity they need to participate in the digital economy. A September article in the Tennessean looks deeper at the state's digital divide between urban and rural areas.

National Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have failed to make good on promises made over recent decades to bring high-quality Internet access to the entire country, both urban and rural. Several telephone cooperatives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are already actively investing in better Internet access to improve rural Tennessee’s economy.

The Tennessean Perspective

The newspaper the Tennessean laid out much of the connectivity problem in the "Volunteer State." Tennessee may have excellent Internet access statewide, but the urban and rural divide remains. According to a Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, only 2 percent of all urban residents do not have access to broadband. The FCC defines it as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. That number climbs in rural areas, where one out of three residents does not have broadband access. 

Speed Is Not The Only Problem

Some folks simply have no Internet connection. For example, Deborah Bahr drove 30 minutes for Wi-Fi at Bojangles (Chicken and Biscuit) or visited a friend’s house a few miles away. Bahr used to run a coffee shop, leaving the Wi-Fi on continuously so local community college students could work on homework overnight in the parking lot. Bahr’s town borders Cocke County, an economically distressed area where almost 30 percent of residents are below the poverty level. 

A state law that prevents cities from expanding telecommunications services to neighboring rural areas hampers local communities’ efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide. The Tennessean article noted that the city of Clarksville has access to a Gigabit (1,000 Mbps), but in nearby Houston County, 99 percent of residents do not have broadband access. Clarksville has high-speed connectivity because the community has CDE Lightband, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network that offers a range of affordable Internet access speeds, including a Gigabit package.

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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, in speaking with the Tennessean, aptly summarized the dilemma that many face:

“Do we want private enterprise to compete with the government? I don’t think that’s government’s role. Our goal is to provide services people can’t get on their own. But that’s the sticky part. This is a service that people in some places in the state can’t get on their own.”

USDA #RuralMade, More Than Ag

Those rural areas with high-speed connectivity in Tennessee often have their local telephone cooperative to thank. Formed by farmers years ago with support from the federal government, these cooperatives brought the first telephone lines out to rural Tennessee. Although fiber networks in rural areas have a high-cost, many of Tennessee’s rural telephone cooperatives have built them. 

A few, such as Highland Telephone Cooperative and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative, relied on support from the USDA to build high-speed FTTH networks. In Tennessee alone the USDA has already invested $236 million for telecommunication projects. For more information on USDA’s multi-million dollar investments in Tennessee, check out the USDA #RuralMade Tennessee Fact Sheet.

These projects are recognized as supporting all aspects of the rural economy from manufacturing to healthcare. According to the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, 24 percent of Tennessee’s households run a business from home with 14 percent operating a business exclusively from their home. That same study found that 43 percent of all new jobs are enabled by broadband.

The rural economy needs high-speed connectivity to move forward. In the Tennessean article, Bahr perfectly encapsulated this:

"I want people around here ... to see themselves as entrepreneurs and real stakeholders," she said. "It could help them start their own businesses."

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.

Foundation Plans to Fund Municipal Broadband Infrastructure

Decatur is in line to receive a donation that will jump-start the community’s musings over publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

Foundation Support

The Howard G. Buffet Foundation recently offered the community several million dollars for a range of public projects, including $330,000 toward expanding the city’s existing fiber-optic network. Decatur deployed a fiber backbone to connect a number of its own facilities in 2014. Earlier this year, city leaders began examining the possibility of expanding the backbone to provide better connectivity to Richland Community College and possibly beyond in the future. 

The college is linked to the statewide educational Illinois Century Network (ICN). Like Merit in Michigan, the educational and research network crisscrosses the state, connecting a variety of educational institutions. Increasingly, these state research networks collaborate with local communities to expand publicly owned networks and improve connectivity in places where national providers don't offer the capacity necessary for modern life.

Early estimates of more than $700,000 cooled early enthusiasm for the Decatur project but revised costs estimates now are at approximately $435,000. With the Foundation’s contribution of $330,000 the city would only need to pitch in $105,000.

A Beginning

According to a recent Herald & Review article, a number of local government entities, nonprofits, and healthcare providers have already expressed interest in connecting to the new network as a cost-saving measure. The city also hopes to attract private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) interested in leasing excess capacity to offer retail services in Decatur. Community leaders see the opportunity as a way to improve economic development:

“We can show businesses from outside the community collaboration does exist,” McCrady said. “The broadband access is part of the infrastructure that is important for the community to have in place. We're working in a global economy now more than ever.”

Under the proposal, the city would lease some of its fiber to other users at a cost that could be more than 75 percent less than what is currently paid and offer what is expected to be faster internet service.

“The city will not be the internet provider,” Tyus said. “We think it's good for the community. We want to see people use it and benefit from the discounted rate we're able to obtain.”

Decatur, home to approximately 73,000 people is the county seat of Macon County in the center of the state. Industrial and agricultural processing dominate the economy as the city is home to Archer Daniels Midland and Caterpillar, Inc. As a growing number of farmers and agribusiness rely on high-speed connectivity as a critical component of the industry, Decatur's leadership is also trying to diversify its economy.

Foundation Support

The Howard G. Buffet Foundation has also provided funding to Decatur and Macon County to establish a regional economic development corporation. Clearly, the organization understands the value of high-quality connectivity to the region as they work to identify and pursue economic development opportunities.

Once the city council approves the gift and the project begins, the project should be completed by the spring of 2017.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 226

This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Joining Christopher Mitchell are Will Aycock and Suzanne Coker Craig. They discuss the situation in Greenlight and Pinetops as well as the importance of connectivity during the recent hurricane. Listen to this episode here.

Suzanne Coker Craig: We just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. As many of our listeners know, in February 2015, the FCC issued an order that preempted restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The FCC's order allowed Greenlight, the municipal network developed by Wilson's electric utility, to expand its Internet access, telephone and video services outside of Wilson County. Pinetops, a small community of about 1300 residents, was connected soon after the FCC ruling and the community, its businesses and residents, finally received the high quality connectivity they needed to step into the 21st century. This last August, the order was reversed by the 6th Circuit for the US Court of Appeals. Wilson had to stop offering service to Pinetops or risk losing the exemption to the state law. In other words, stop serving Pinetops or the state would shut them down completely. In this interview, Chris talks with Will Aycock, Greenlight's General Manager, and later, Suzanne Coker Craig, a Pinetops business owner and town commissioner. Will describes a situation in the area, especially since the onset of Hurricane Matthew, which has hit Pinetops hard, and how Wilson found a way to continue to help its neighbor. Suzanne describes what it was like before the community had high quality services from Greenlight. She also describes how important the services are for the town, and how Greenlight has gone above and beyond to help the people of Pinetops. Now, here's Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm starting off today talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, the municipal fiber network in Wilson, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Will Aycock: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: It's great to have you back. I think a lot of people are aware that you have had a state law in the past that has prohibited you from building your network outside of the county, though you have many neighbors that would like to have it. For a period of time, the FCC preempted that law and made it so that you could expand. What did you do during that period?

Will Aycock: During that period, we offered our service to the residents of the town of Pinetops, North Carolina, over in Edgecombe County. Pinetops is a wholesale power customer of our electric utility, so we actually had fiber all the way into the community and had been helping them with building fiber even before the change in the law that allowed us to provide our broadband services. Since we already had fiber access in the community and we'd actually been working back in 2009 and 10 with the town officials down in Pinetops, to basically do the engineering studies required to go ahead and bring broadband into their community, so all that legwork had been done. When the window of opportunity presented itself, we went ahead and began providing our broadband service to their residents.

Christopher Mitchell: You guys are about 50,000 people. Pinetops is what? 1,800? It's a pretty small city.

Will Aycock: Yes, it's a very small, eastern North Carolina typical town.

Christopher Mitchell: That's very complicated, because the 6th Circuit has reinstated the law. What does that mean for Pinetops?

Will Aycock: In effect, it means that we are no longer allowed to provide telecommunications services for a fee outside of Wilson County, which puts us in the position of potentially having to disconnect or withdraw our broadband services from that community. However, as you may know, we have uncovered at least a temporary solution that hopefully will allow us to find a permanent solution to the issue.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, under the law, you have 30 days basically to stop serving them, although I think it's not really clear when that 30 days started from. In any event, you had scheduled basically the end of October to cut them off, and just last week, or as this is airing the week before, you decided to offer free service because that is allowed under the law. What made the Wilson City Council decide to do that?

Will Aycock: First and foremost, we've been working and trying to uncover essentially any opportunity to avoid withdrawing service, especially right now during this critical time for that community. As you may be aware, we're barely two weeks out from Hurricane Matthew, one of the most devastating hurricanes that's happened to this part of the world since really Floyd back in the late 1990s. Obviously, there was already an effort underway to try to figure out how to not withdraw this critical infrastructure from the residents of Pinetops. They sort of layer on this natural disaster with many of their residents living in emergency shelters, relief organizations coming in to the community, helping to get people back on their feet, all of those operations relying on the broadband network really for the essential communications behind those efforts. That really put an increased amount of weight on trying to find a solution. Our attorneys came to the realization that there was this sort of potential loophole that would allow us to at least temporarily provide broadband and voice service in the community at no charge. Obviously it's not a permanent solution, and it wouldn't be a solution at all if it were not for our private sector partners. We've actually had two of our wholesale providers that we purchase the bandwidth and dial tone from step up and they are actually offering us services for free for a limited period of time to essentially help us to bridge this gap in the community, both to give them opportunity to get back on their feet after this natural disaster, and from a broader sense, hopefully allowing us in partnership with some of our state legislators to find a permanent solution.

Christopher Mitchell: First of all, I just want to say it's really great to hear that there's multiple entities coming together to make sure that Pinetops is not left out. It's also worth noting that you were the only broadband provider in Pinetops. There is no cable. There is DSL provider, but I know a person in Pinetops and he has assured me that no one could get more than 10 megabit service, which is not broadband access and certainly would be very hard to run a business on. You pulling out would be a significant hardship. I'm just curious, if you could just briefly tell us some of the important ways that the broadband service has been essential dealing with this emergency situation.

Will Aycock: Right. One of the first things is simple communication with family members. As these residents were evacuated from their homes and they were moved into this emergency shelter there in the community, they have relative and family and friends across the nation and across the globe who want to know that they're okay. There's been some lack of communications services that we fielded the call basically saying, "Can you guys come down and set up wireless in the shelter, so that these people's devices will work and it will allow them to communicate with their family and friends across the globe, letting them know that they're okay?"

Christopher Mitchell: You noted broadband and telephone services, but there will be no cable services. This is a lifeline type of service really that you're going to be providing while we hope that the North Carolina legislature, at the very least, exempts Pinetops from the law or ideally reconsiders the entire limitation that you have to deal with.

Will Aycock: Right. Certainly our immediately priority is extending these lifeline services during this transition period, hopefully allowing the legislators to, at a minimum, as you said, provide a fix for the residents there in Pinetops and our other customers outside of Wilson County, although our goal certainly is to have all communities in this state have the option to be able to meet their own infrastructure needs as their elected officials deem appropriate.

Christopher Mitchell: I'd just like to ask you one other thing as we finish up, and that's just so people are aware, in the middle of this almost existential crisis for Pinetops with this devastation from the hurricane, you still have them prioritizing, getting down to Raleigh to argue for some relief from the state in the form of this law. I think that, just to me, it shows me how incredibly important this issue is. This isn't just about downloading Netflix. This is about the survival of a community in the modern era.

Will Aycock: Absolutely. It's been very moving to see what's going on in the community and to watch their elected leaders, their mayor and commissioners, trade duty between working at the shelters, helping to serve their citizens there, and then sort of ferrying back and forth almost a relay at Raleigh to meet with various state officials to try to advocate on behalf of their community for long term access to this infrastructure. I think seeing that play out has really highlighted for me and for many others the importance of this infrastructure in these communities.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you very much, Will, both for the call today and also for setting an example of how communities should be helping each other out to make sure that we can all thrive in this country.

Will Aycock: I appreciate it, Chris. It was great talking with you.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm speaking with Suzanne Coker Craig, a town commissioner and small business owner in Pinetops, North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.

Christopher Mitchell: I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that there's a lot going on there. I'm curious, if we could start just with a sense of what it was like to be a small business owner prior to getting the Wilson Internet service in Pinetops.

Suzanne Coker Craig: You kind of make do with what you have, so we were very used to dealing with slow Internet, but we didn't have any options. We made the best of it, but our Internet was pretty slow and unreliable. I spent almost 20 years living in Raleigh in the triangle before I moved back home, so I was used to a little more modern approach and still have lots of friends and family who live in Raleigh. I go up there and realize how much faster real Internet was. Customer service was terrible. You got the feeling that we were the small town dealing with the large company who really didn't care about us at all, and go through all kinds of mazes to get through to a person to talk with them if you had a problem. Generally, you were told the problem must be on your end. It was frustrating and it was slow and it was unreliable.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say unreliable, I think there's a number of people who might think, "Well, yes, my cable Internet cuts out every few months or so." I'm guessing it's significantly more unreliable for you.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. There would be periods during every day when more than one of us were online down here at my shop, we'd both be waiting and it would be dragging. Sometimes it would just drop off. When you say people are used to that kind of thing once every couple of months, this would be about once a week that it would just drop off for no reason. It may not be off long, but just enough to interrupt what you were doing and really just got aggravating. There would be times, honestly, with a light rain, that it would just disappear for a few minutes. It was constantly your connection would drop off on your computer, and it would have to be searching for the connection again. It was much more common than I think anyone would really be used to or expect.

Christopher Mitchell: How did things change when Wilson began offering the service, the much faster Internet service?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Oh, my goodness, it was night and day. The difference with the Internet services was it was incredibly fast, and I've actually tested. I will be honest and say that I did not have a chance to hook up my business with Greenlight, I had Greenlight at my house, which is about a block away. I have it in my home but not in my business yet because I was in line to be hooked up when the court ruling came down. I'm kind of on the waiting list for my business, but I had tested my service at home versus my service here at work, and the Internet at home is five times faster. The speed was very noticeable and the service is seamless. I don't think I've had any interruptions other than probably for about 45 minutes during the hurricane a couple weeks ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's somewhat understandable.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Yes. That I don't complain about. It was noteworthy that's all the time we lost it. It's fast enough that I will routinely leave my business if I have a large file to upload or something like that and will run home and upload files and do things that I need fast, reliable Internet. I will walk a block to my house with my laptop. It's very noticeable, and people here have been incredibly excited about it. Everybody that's gotten it has loved it and has commented on how much more efficient it is, and just really, really excited about it. The fact that they had an option was also noteworthy for all of us here. We don't have to choose the only one. We have an option.

Christopher Mitchell: I have the impression that now that the town has had it and it is possibly about to be taken away that people are fighting harder than they would be if it was just a hypothetical issue, because obviously people could've been upset about this law two and three years ago, but now that they've tasted it, it seems like something's different.

Suzanne Coker Craig: It's entirely different idea because, yes, I guess when you live in a small, rural town, you get used to being left behind in things. I'm sure when the law was passed in 2011, it was one of those, "Well, they wouldn't let us get this anyway, I'm sure." That was five years ago and it wasn't quite as common for areas to have that kind of speed of Internet. Honestly, our economy has gotten even more dependent on good Internet service since then. I think the combination of those things, and yes, when you get it and you realize how good it is and then somebody wants to take it away, yes, our folks are extremely upset about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Just turning to Hurricane Matthew, can you briefly tell us the lasting impact that you've had from the storm?

Suzanne Coker Craig: Our little town of Pinetops, which is about 1300, similar to when Hurricane Floyd came through, we are almost like a little island and I'm not exaggerating this, within a half a mile of our town's borders, just about on all sides, we have significant flooding. People within our community, quite a few people lost their homes. We had others who had significant damage to their homes and were displaced for a couple of weeks at least. There's obviously still a lot of rebuilding going on and a lot of recovery efforts and those kinds of things. That situation also brought about how important it was to have good Internet. One of our churches here set up an impromptu shelter because all of this was pretty unexpected as far as the level of the flooding. One of our local churches set up a shelter and within a couple of hours of them doing that, the folks from Greenlight and Wilson were at the shelter hooking up the fellowship hall, where they had about 100 people housed, for the Wi-Fi connection. They had Wi-Fi already at the church, but it wasn't strong enough to reach the area. The folks from Greenlight hooked it up and we had quite a few people in the shelter who were Hispanic. They immediately were able to get on their phones and let people know, let their families know, that they were okay. That was a tremendous relief to a lot of folks and really made a difference. We saw immediate impact from that. Like I said, the folks from Greenlight had been here, they had serviced us very well, very quickly, and we know that we are a priority with them in the service they have given us, even through this disaster situation. There have been several situations. Especially considering that they may have to take their service away from us, and they have gone above and beyond with service calls and those kinds of things given that situation that it would be easy for them to brush us off and say, "Well, we're going to have to cut them off anyway." But they haven't and that's been a tremendous difference in the attitudes of the folks in this town as well.

Christopher Mitchell: I've met a number of people from Greenlight over the years and I've always been impressed with their character, so I'm very happy to hear that. One of the reasons I wanted to ask you about the hurricane is because I found it really powerful learning from Will that your town's leadership, in the midst of dealing with all this, was still having to go to Raleigh to plead your case to be exempted from the law that's preventing Wilson from expanding. To me, it just showed how seriously this is being taken by your town's leadership.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Absolutely. It's one of those things -- We had a meeting that Friday. The hurricane basically came in late Friday and Saturday. We had a meeting Raleigh. We thought the folks in Raleigh might call it off because of the weather but they didn't, so we got all trooped up there. Everyone, with time to go, went to Raleigh. It's that important for us. Our entire area, really, in eastern North Carolina, the small, rural areas really struggle economically and we're in one of the poorest counties in the state. It is very hard for us to attract business. It's hard for us to attract population here. This Greenlight service really gives us a considerable economic boost, and we just think it's phenomenally important to our town, to really the existence and survival of our town. We think it's that important.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to thank you for taking time out while you're in the middle of these two important issues and running a business and running a town and everything else. I think people are really going to be interested in what you have to say, so thank you for taking the time.

Suzanne Coker Craig: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure, and we will keep fighting.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight, and Suzanne Coker Craig, Pinetops' Town Commissioner and local business owner. We have plenty of coverage of Pinetops, Wilson, and Greenlight at MuniNetworks.org and we'll continue to follow developments there. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stores on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR Podcasts family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group Mojo Monkeys for their song Bodacious, licensed through Creative Commons, and we want to thank you for listening to episode 226 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Pinetops Threatened by Hurricane and NC Legislature - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 226

Pinetops, a town of about 1,300 outside Wilson, North Carolina, is suffering a double calamity as Hurricane Matthew has left floods and incredible damage in its wake. Less natural but no less frustrating is the unforced error by the North Carolina Legislature in effectively prohibiting municipal broadband networks.

This week, we have a doubleheader interview with Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson's fiber-optic Greenlight service, and Suzanne Coker Craig, a local business owner and town council member. They talk discuss the devastation from the hurricane and the threat from the town's only broadband provider being forced to leave town by an ill-conceived state statute.

We often talk about how important modern Internet networks are, but the Pinetops reaction to this storm is a stirring reminder of how true that is. Whether it was as the hurricane approached, hit, or left town, local leadership had to continue fighting to retain Wilson's Internet service because it is that important to them.

Fortunately, Wilson has announced that it will not cut off Pinetops as expected. Instead, it will offer free service, which is not prohibited by current law. Wilson is generously giving the state six months to fix the law so Pinetops is not economically harmed by losing high quality Internet access.

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 28 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."

Blair Levin In Wilson For Nov. 4 Event On Greenlight

A North Carolina regional tech news publication will host a program on Greenlight, the publicly owned and built fiber optic network of Wilson, North Carolina (pop. 50,000) whose gigabit Internet service has helped transform the community’s economy. 

WRAL TechWire’s next Executive Exchange event titled “Building a gigabit ecosystem” will look at how Wilson built its fiber optic system, "turning the one-time tobacco town into North Carolina’s first Internet ecosystem." The event begins at 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center; broadband expert Blair Levin is scheduled to give the keynote address. Levin is former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission.

Levin has also been a guest on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, visiting us for episode #132 to discuss private vs. public ownership and episode #37 to talk about GigU.

Besides Levin’s keynote speech, the TechWire program also will include a live "fireside chat" about Greenlight with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings and panel discussions.

You can find out more about the program and reserve a spot online.

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

map-stark-county.png

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."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 223

This is episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Eleven communities in Northern Utah are now served by a regional open access fiber-optic network, UTOPIA. Perry City's Mayor Karen Cronin and UTOPIA's Executive Director Roger Timmerman join the show. Listen to this episode here.

Karen Cronin: We don't have the money that some of the lobbyists are getting from big companies, but we have a voice and I think that our legislatures will listen to local voices if they have the courage to step forward.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, also known as UTOPIA, began serving north-central Utah in 2004. The regional open access fiber-optic network has had its share of challenges since launch, but has slogged through them to now bring healthy competition to residents and businesses in 11 communities. Joining Chris this week are the mayor of one of the UTOPIA cities, Karen Cronin from Perry. Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA, is also part of the conversation. Our guests share stories about how competition has benefited local businesses and residents. They also describe infrastructure sign-up choices they have as property owners in a UTOPIA community and what it's like to have more than one or two ISPs at your feet. Now here are Chris, Mayor Cronin from Perry, and Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with two wonderful guests from the state of Utah. Roger Timmerman is the executive director of UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency. Welcome to the show.

Roger Timmerman: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

Christopher Mitchell: Perry City mayor, Karen Cronin. Welcome to the show.

Karen Cronin: Thank you. I'm delighted to be part of the conversation.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to talk more about what's happening in Utah today. You've all been trailblazers in open access approaches. Roger, I think you were only of the early trailblazers who's now back with UTOPIA. Today we'll talk about the results, particularly in one of the UTOPIA communities, Perry City. Let's start there. Mayor Cronin, can you please tell me about your community and the internet access you have there?

Karen Cronin: Yeah. Let's start with what the community is like. Perry City is a small city, about 5,000 residents. It's located about 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. Six months ago we had very limited options for internet. We had some of the neighborhoods who didn't have any option except for dial up. At my house, we were on a satellite system where I was getting 5Mb speed. Fast-forward a few months and we were able to connect into the direct line with UTOPIA, the direct fiber line, and I now have upwards of 250Mb of speed, as does the whole city. The city was built out in less than four months. We've gone from a dial-up system to the cutting edge of what's available.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's remarkable. I'm sure that there are many people listening who would just love to have that kind of capacity available. Roger, can you help fill in some of the gaps for people who might be unfamiliar with UTOPIA? What is it?

Roger Timmerman: UTOPIA, we're a group of 11 cities. Perry City is one of those cities. These are cities that felt like they were not being served by the incumbents. Just wasn't enough options. They felt the negative impact of businesses leaving their communities in some case and just not offering the type of connectivity that they felt was needed to develop businesses and residences. They got together, they created UTOPIA and UTOPIA's an interlocal governmental agency, which is made up of these cities, and they built a massive backbone to connect these cities together and can collectively bond for the construction and operations of this network. The reason they did it that way was if you think of a city the size of Perry City, it's a great city, but it's not very large. The ability to put into place the fiber of the home system and operate that, get providers in there, it would be very difficult for just one small city to do. Collectively, the cities could get an economy and scale together to attract service providers, to get an efficiency of operations that would make this work. UTOPIA's had a difficult path. Initially, it started up and ran into some funding obstacles. The cities have since decided, let's fix some of these things and move forward. It was about five or six years ago, we took down a new model and took down additional debt and with that we've been very successful so for the last six or seven years UTOPIA has actually been able to build networks where the revenues from the builds of those networks are covering all of the debt service for the cost of building those networks and so we are in a great state now where we are now covering all of our operational expenses and all of the incremental debt we've taken justifies and sustains the growth of the system. Well, Perry City is one of these cities that's benefited from that in the sense that it hasn't really cost Perry City any additional money other than their original membership in the system and the collective funding of the cities but we've been able to build out that entire city and we're building out very rapidly in other cities in parallel. The nice thing about Perry is the whole city is covered. They can all get the same gigabit service. We install gigabits to homes and businesses typically. Larger businesses will get 10 Gig. Some very large connections we support are 100 Gig. In a city like Perry, it's very rural, but they can attract enormous investment from a data center or a large business or an industrial partner or something because we can deliver 100 gigabit anywhere in that city and actually offer that in a redundant way because of this redundant backbone put in collectively by these cities.

Karen Cronin: In Perry City we have a great number of home businesses. The demographics of Perry City, although it's small, it has the highest education rate for its' members and a lot of those people work from home. Having this option has brought even more people into the city and we have people calling and telling me that they have now had their bosses ask them if they can work from home because their home connection is faster than their at work connections and they get more done.

Christopher Mitchell: That's remarkable. I always like to hear that. I have to say that one of the things I love about UTOPIA and Roger, I'm sure you can't pick favorites but I can, I love that UTOPIA gives small providers like Xmission an opportunity to have many more customers. Xmission has been a guest on this show before, I think they have wonderful privacy policies, very bull-ish. I like seeing cities that have small, historic ISPs like Brighamnet also being able to expand and get more customers and thrive. I think that's an important role from my point of view, that UTOPIA really allows local businesses to be very competitive with the big companies with Comcast and CenturyLink that I happen to have here, where I'm recording this and I know you have out there, that don't always meet local needs in a way a local provider can.

Roger Timmerman: I agree. That's a major part of why we do it the way we do it. Open Access is not easy and it's taken quite bit a of time for UTOPIA to have a good, stable, competitive environment of providers and today we have 10 companies that compete residentially and about 25 that compete on the business side of things. Perry by itself even if they had fibers at home they may not naturally attract competition on that system but because of the scale of UTOPIA it's big enough to attract this level of competition and enable lots of these local providers and also some bigger providers to all kind of compete under a fair fiber infrastructure put in place by some of the cities.

Karen Cronin: That point is so important because it creates such a win-win for the residents by having an open network system. It creates the competition and it requires the service to be great and the price to be competitive if they are going to stay on the system and be competitive but it also allows like you said local businesses to be able to play at the same arena that some of the big businesses do and have a fair shake so it is a win-win all the way around.

Christopher Mitchell: Mayor Cronin, do you know of any personal anecdotes of people who have talked about how they are amazed that Perry City has this incredible connectivity available to them and it's enabled them to succeed in ways they might not otherwise have been able to.

Karen Cronin: I can tell you about a business that produces things from the home and then sells them out. They were telling me that before their Internet power didn't allow them to have the mass marketing they wanted and be as responsive and have the service level that would sustain their business. Since they've been able to connect to UTOPIA and have the ability to shop around for what suited their business best as far as a provider, they've been able to see their Internet sales increase dramatically.

Christopher Mitchell: Roger, I'm curious. If I'm a resident or a business in Perry, getting connected to you is just a little more different to what most people are used to. Can you walk me through my options as a homeowner on how I'd possible connect to Utopia?

Roger Timmerman: If you live in an area where UTOPIA is available, you can go to our website, put in your address, and it will pull up and show you, here are the services available to you from 10 different companies. It's a shopping cart of services. So, what happens is you sign up for the infrastructure from UTOPIA and we present the retail offerings from our partnered service providers so you kind of sign two agreements. You're getting infrastructure from the city and UTOPIA collectively and then Internet or phone or video or whatever those services you want bundled from the service provider. So you, two pieces and then how you pay for your fiber connection, a lot of our customers will say, "well, I'll just lease that monthly for 30 bucks and there's a 2 year term so it looks a lot like what you'd get from other options". We have some people who take a different option and that's where they essentially own their fiber connection. They pay up front a larger amount, $2,750 is actually the amount and then they never pay for it again. They own their fiber and then it just becomes, a very low bill because then they're only paying $35 to their service provider and it'll never go up after that. If you're leasing the connection from us, it starts at about $65 a month for 250 Megabit connection. I say that as an example of what we have right now but we don't control those prices. The beauty of it is that it is competitive and those retail providers are free to change their prices whenever they want to be competitive. We struggle because we try to publish the pricing and then they change it. It's a struggle but it's also the beauty of competition is that they're constantly coming up with different promotions and lowering and raising and adding options and they have the freedom to do that and that's one of the beauties of open access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things as an outside observer that's impossible to miss is you have, in your region, a nonprofit organization that I suspect largely gets contributions from CenturyLink and Comcast that paints a picture that people in Utah are very frustrated and angry that UTOPIA wasn't able to pay its way in the way it was expected. Now, Mayor Cronin, I'm just curious. Do you get a sense from your citizens, are they glad UTOPIA exists or would they prefer that they didn't have these options and they didn't have to hear these claims that the network is not good?

Karen Cronin: I will be honest with you. As Roger has mentioned, it's had a tough start and it was a new idea, a very forward thinking idea and for the first few years we were paying into UTOPIA collectively as one of the original 11 member cities and we were getting 0 service and that was hard. We still get a lot of comments from residents but about 3 years ago we as the 11 cities came together and said we need to make this system work and we talked through several options and like Roger said we got to the point where we were able to start funding build out and things. Once we had the build out and once we took it to our residents which was last February and told them where we had come, I have heard nothing but positive, nothing but positive since February when we rolled it out. We had a town hall meeting, we told them where we had come and the obstacles we had overcome and at that point we were able to roll it out that it was totally optional. If people wanted it, great. If they didn't there wouldn't be any extra assessments to them. Once they saw the competitive advantage it gave them because of the number of people on the network and having the fiber direct to their home it has been phenomenal excitement in the city.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm not too surprised to hear that. I've seen that in other places as well. This is an infrastructure that's going to last a long time. I look back, a number of the airports that cities built many decades ago, they took a long time to break even but people were generally glad to have them available. One of the things people often realize is you were among the first to be doing this. The lessons you learned really helped a lot of other communities to be successful in terms of structuring their programs and learning lessons about how to move forward. So, I think, in some ways, the mistakes you made were a bit of a public service in terms of teaching others a lesson. One of the other things I want to talk about as we are running out of time with the time we have left, some of the problems you faced weren't your fault. The state made it hard on you. Roger, I'm wondering if you can tell us a little about the ways of which the state, I think, acting on behalf of the big companies that you're competing with, actually put its thumb on the scale to make your life more difficult.

Roger Timmerman: Yeah, one of the things was, the prohibition on us offering services directly. We like the idea of open access but it would be possible to provide some of the services directly while still allowing competition on the network. It was a big curveball at the UTOPIA cities to get legislation that showed up from a legislator that wasn't even in the cities involving UTOPIA that put all these restrictions on what cities could do and all this additional process and red tape that they'd have to go through to get the product in place. The legislation, what has been used as an example, since then, of how to go buy some legislation. It wasn't even in the conversation in Utah among citizens and legislators, it was brought in and given to legislators to push in behalf of a private interest.

Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Greeley wrote a great article in Business Week many years ago and it's titled, "Psst... Wanna Buy a Law?" If people Google that, I have no doubt they'll find it. It's exactly how you describe it and it's worth reading, but please continue.

Roger Timmerman: That was the initial obstacle. Open Access, we like it, it does provide a scalability issue. There's less dollars coming to UTOPIA to cover our investments. It's a good model, it's a more difficult model. The biggest problem UTOPIA has had has been financials. It's been a problem for us. Since that time, it seem like every year or two years another piece of legislation shows up trying to further restrict what we can do and it's a fight. We don't have a budget like the private companies do to go and lobby and push for influence at a legislation level. It's really an interesting contrast because among residents, populations in our cities, and businesses even, UTOPIA is extremely popular and the incumbents are some of the most hated companies in America. Along legislators, the incumbents are really popular, you can imagine why that is because of, whether it's campaign contributions or influence among different groups.

Christopher Mitchell: Weekly golf trips?

Roger Timmerman: It's night and day between the citizens and legislators and what their interactions are with the incumbents.

Christopher Mitchell: Mayor Cronin?

Karen Cronin: I remember a couple years ago when there was a piece of legislation that was going to pass that was going to greatly affect the way we could promote the UTOPIA's, the 11 cities and the 11 cities banded together and went to talk to the legislature. It was because of that, the local involvement that the legislators listened and gave us a bit more time and didn't pass that legislation. I can't emphasize enough how important it is -- if people want local control then the local elected officials need to be involved and make things happen. We don't have the money that some of the lobbyists are getting from big companies, but we have a voice and I think our legislators will listen to local voices if they have the courage to step forward.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's a really good point. It's not enough to just be right, you have to make sure you're raising your voice up as local elected officials and just citizens to say this is our point of view. Because, as we discussed, the legislators, they hear from the big companies every day. They need to hear from multiple constituents every day on these issues as well in order to even just think they're similar in terms of important, in terms of policy preferences. I think we're about out of time but I'd love to give you another chance to say anything else you'd like to say as we finish up our discussion. Let me start with you Roger.

Roger Timmerman: It's an exciting time in the space of municipal fiber. What we've seen in our own area is that the demand for this service is higher than it's ever been. We started this thing back in 2002 and back then people were still trying to figure out what Fiber was and what the benefits were and there was a major population that didn't use it. Now it's a given. Everyone wants Internet connectivity and they don't just want it, they want good speeds and good service. Over time it's been legitimized and we've seen that in the form of increased demands and then we see, where's the rest of the industry, where's the incumbents and other options and it seems that they're actually falling further behind. We go back ten years and these guys weren't the most hated companies in America. Things have gotten worse for them, not better. Rather than upgrade and compete, we see an increased and deliberate effort to stop municipal progress building Fiber projects, and so it's good in the sense that the success and demand for municipal fibers have increased but there's an increased threat because there's a lot of work being done to preserve incumbent interests. It's great, we're seeing successes here. Our financials are better, we're in a position that we're actually growing faster than we have in our whole history. Things are good. We have other cities looking to partner with us in other ways and that wasn't a conversation we weren't able to have because of the past difficulties. I think you'll see UTOPIA continue to grow and be successful and I think you'll see efforts like UTOPIA across the country and have success.

Christopher Mitchell: Parting thoughts from Mayor Cronin?

Karen Cronin: I think in the world we live in today we are seeing the rate of technological advances is at warp speed. In order to be competitive and stay at the forefront, we need to allow the free enterprise system to work and not put legislation in place that may limit that free enterprise system. I would put Perry out there as one of the success stories. A small rural community of 5,000 and yet now we have the capability through the UTOPIA network and the open market to be able to have 100 Gigabit connections and redundancy and multiple providers and that puts us on the map to be able to support some of the biggest companies that are looking at trying to locate in the West. It's a great thing and we've benefitted enormously.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you both for taking time to come on and share your experiences and the message of hope coming out of Northern Utah.

Karen Cronin: Thank you for allowing us to talk to you Chris.

Roger Timmerman: Thank you Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Mayor Cronin from Perry and Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA talking with Chris about the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency. Check out their website at UTOPIAnet.org to learn more. We also have a number of stories about UTOPIA on MuniNetworks.org. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us with your ideas for the show. Send a note to podcast@MuniNetworks.org. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org's stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all the podcasts in the ILSR Podcast Family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your Podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song “Bodacious” licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to Episode 223 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

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.

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Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."