The following stories have been tagged loan ← Back to All Tags

Rural Electrics Solve Rural Internet Access Problems - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 229

Rural electric co-ops have started delivering high quality Internet access to their member-owners and our guest this week on Community Broadband Bits episode 229 is dedicated to helping these co-ops to build fiber-optic networks throughout their territories. Jon Chambers is a partner at Conexon and was previously the head of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

Jon is a strong proponent for ensuring rural residents and businesses have at least the same quality Internet access as urban areas. We talk about his experience and frustration at the FCC, which was content to shovel money at telcos for the most basic infrastructure rather than setting higher expectations to ensure everyone had decent Internet access. We talk about how Co-Mo rolled out fiber to its members without federal assistance, inspiring electric cooperatives around the nation to follow suit.

In our discussion, I reference Jon's blog post "FCC to Rural America: Drop Dead." In it, he cites some of the reactions in the FCC from his advocacy for real rural solutions rather than signing big checks to big telcos for delivering slow and unreliable Internet access. One of quotes from a Democrat: "Republicans like corporate welfare, so we’re going to give money to the telephone companies to keep the Republicans on the Hill happy."

Neither political party comes off looking very good when it comes to rural connectivity, which fits with our impression. But Jon confirms another of our experiences when he says that when he works with rural communities, politics doesn't come up. They just focus on solutions.

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 36 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."

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 225

This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits. Representatives of Midwest Energy Cooperative discuss their project to bring high-speed connectivity to rural southwest Michigan. Listen to this episode here.

Dave Allen: I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's a project taking shape in rural southwest Michigan and the nearby regions of Indiana and Ohio. It's headed up by the Midwest Energy Cooperative. At the recent Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Minneapolis, Chris ran into Bob Hance, President and CEO of the cooperative, and Dave Allen, the cooperative's Vice President of Regulatory Compliance. Naturally, we wanted to hear more about their project and share the details with you. They provide some history and how access to high quality connectivity has positively impacted a number of their rural members. Chris, Bob, and Dave also have some interesting thoughts on federal funding programs, project standards, and the different rules for cooperatives and big corporate providers. Learn more about the project at teamfiber.com, where you can also discover more about the cooperative. Now you may notice some background noise. We apologize in advance. While we advocate for local choice and access to technology, sometimes technology is just not on our side. We had a little trouble with the mic that day. Also, Chris is suffering from allergies, and until winter sets in, he may sound a little like the late Howard Cosell, but never fear, it is our Christopher. Now, here with Chris are Bob Hance, President and CEO, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for Midwest Energy Cooperative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with two folks from Michigan. Bob Hance, the President and CEO of Midwest Energy Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Bob Hance: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: And Dave Allen, the Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for the Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Dave Allen: Thanks, Chris. Good to see you out in Minneapolis.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Dave, it was terrific to run into you and to learn more about your approach.

Bob Hance: Not many people say that, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm happy to be the one. Now your cooperative is really leading Michigan, in terms of delivering high quality Internet access. Can you tell us about your regions that you serve?

Dave Allen: I can touch on the areas that we serve and set that up. Bob does a great job of talking about our history in the communication space. Midwest Energy serves twelve counties. Eight of those in Michigan, three in Indiana, and another two in Ohio. We have two distinct service areas. One in southeast Michigan, and one in southwest Michigan. The area we’re really focusing on, in terms of our initial phase of this project, is the southwest Michigan district. That scenario's characterized by Notre Dame, down in Indiana and South Bend, and you can go in a northeasterly direction toward Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan. We're those counties that fall in between that space. The area is really kind of identified by Whirlpool's world headquarters. Kellogg world headquarters is nearby in Battle Creek. We've got Pfizer up in Kalamazoo. A lot of industry that is in the area but not in our direct service footprint. The areas we serve are more rural areas, more characterized by seed corn industry, and perhaps to the south, the RV industry. My point being is that we are extremely rural. We probably serve about eight members per mile, but we do have large industry that's in the area that lives in our service footprint and really have a need for access to high speed broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to point out that after talking with some of the telephone cooperatives here in Minnesota, eight people a mile is a positive luxury in some cases.

Dave Allen: In terms of municipals are 60-some-odd customers per mile. Investor on utilities run on the 30 members or customers per mile range. So at eight customers per mile, that's still pretty rural.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that a rule of thumb has been that you make money when you have eleven people per linear mile or more with a private sector business plan, but not if you have less than eleven people per mile. But let's talk about your history of offering communications services.

Bob Hance: Technically, we've been an active ISP since the mid-90's. That was all brought upon by a relationship we had with Trans World Network. We provided third party long distance, as well as ISP services through dial-up. As the Internet progressed, and people became more and more in tune with all things related to the electronic world and personal computers and the mobile devices that we have today, obviously dial-up service was just not going to be the thing of the future. So over time, we've had many, many folks who have left that to go to other options, including satellite, which we've entered in to providing terrestrial broadband, thinking that that was going to be a possible solution to the rural space that we were in, and a good replacement for dial-up. Unfortunately, we ran into problems such as limited band availability in the service territories that we were trying to serve. We had numbers of people who had signed up for that service but were let down because the capacity of the satellite just was not going to reach the demand. And even though they launched the second satellite, we ran into the same problem with that and eventually moved on to phase number three, if you will, with trying to provide rural America with some semblance of broadband. And that was broadband over power line. We were one of nine co-ops that were involved with a company called IBEC that was a single source provider of equipment and a process that would provide a signal across the power line. So an injection on our current equipment that sounded very promising as well. Unfortunately, we were two years into it and finally started to get past some of the technical issues that came with broadband over power lines when IBEC announced that they were bankrupt. That was back in December 2011. So here we have a few hundred people who had been hooked up with satellite and broadband over power line, and instead of abandoning them entirely, we just went back to the drawing board and said, "What's next?" Interestingly enough, at the same time, separate from communications, our utility folks, which includes me, were kicking around what we were going to do with respect to our needs in communications for the electric space. We have an active SCADA system. We know what's going to happen with the further smartening of the grid. So clearly utilities have been using various forms of communications between substations and their corporate offices at headquarters to get data back from the field. Eventually the light comes on and we say, "If we put in this fiber system, we take care of our utility needs, and at the same time, we can leverage that with the opportunity to replace what we've been trying to do by providing a true broadband to our membership, which married quite well together I can say."

Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's interesting because I think almost all electric utilities are involved in communications for internal needs, but there is a split between those who see themselves purely as an electricity co-op and not interested in doing anything externally, and then those that see themselves as more technology driven and bringing the technology of the day to their members. Is that your experience?

Bob Hance: I think you're spot on. I think those are the conversations that have been had across the country. I like to see it as we're doing what is required to continue to serve our membership in a relevant way. I'll just exercise that a little bit by saying that if not for the insistence of them for the last several years that we look at ways to provide them this service, I don't know that we would have. I think our principle responsibility and our duty is to our membership, and if the membership is asking us to consider other products and services that make being part of the rural landscape more enjoyable, more affordable, more reasonable for them, that's what we ought to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, do you have anything to add on that?

Dave Allen: Yeah, just to add to that, we don't have an annual meeting per say, but we have district meetings where Bob goes out and engages our membership. And over the course of probably the last three or four years, the questions trended away from anything having to deal with electricity and more toward can you provide a broadband solution. We have a lot of folks out here that are on air cards. I think there are still some people on dial-up and folks utilizing satellite ... frustrations with usage allowances, with costs, with reliability, all these things that enter into the equation. They are just tired and fed up with that, so increasingly they have asked us to enter that communication space, where in all honesty, we were comfortable remaining an electric co-op. So we're a little bit of a reluctant participant. But there are a lot of things going on with respect to energy too, and Bob touched on some of the smart grid things we're doing. We have to do a better of helping people manage their energy use better, so this is one component of that.

Christopher Mitchell: I understand that you are not alone. There are other cooperatives in Michigan that are interested in working together to improve Internet access?

Bob Hance: We are working in conjunction with the other electric co-ops in Michigan. There are nine of us, specifically. A number of them are going through this process of evaluating from a conceptual standpoint. Maybe moving forward they are doing their due diligence. There are some surveys that have been presented to the memberships. At least three of them are fairly active in this process, but of course it takes a little bit of time for them to walk through that. I think it's promising. I think they understand that we're here to help in any way. We're the example that is on their way with already building a project, so we're a ready resource, and a valuable resource in their process. We'll see where it goes.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Bob. I'm also curious if there is a difference in your members across different states in terms of appetites for delivering broadband or if the interest is pretty similar.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think there is interest from all kinds of areas. Even those co-ops that are serving closer to the suburban areas. What everyone understands, and you get this firsthand, is when Google showed up with this whole idea of Google-fying a city, or Google-fibering a city, and that whole contest that went on for the better part of two years, raised the specter of what does this mean, fiber, and what can this provide versus what we already have. This notion of this being like the technology that passes every other technology easily and to the extent that you can say it is future-proof, it just seems like there isn't any end to the desire of folks, even beyond our memberships, that would really like to get connected to fiber. If you look at who is signing up on our website, it is probably three to one right now. So for every three members that we have signing up to take service from us, we have a person signing up that is not an electric member of ours but is close enough to see what we're doing and hoping that they can get connected as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Interesting. You're getting pressure to expand even to people who are not members of the co-op at this point then.

Bob Hance: Yes, very much so. It's probably one of the hardest things for us to manage toward is this demand that is outside or external to our current footprint. And the strong desire for all these other people to get connected too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that there are two key questions that come up. And Dave, I'd like to direct this to you first. In terms of a project like this, how do you finance it? There is a context here that rural areas have too little demand, and if you wanted to deliver high quality Internet access to them, it would be too costly. So how do you make it work?

Dave Allen: Well, in terms of your first question, our financing the project through member equity. We reached out to USDA, RUS, the Rural Utility Service, because as Bob mentioned earlier, we were looking at our need for better communications utilizing fiber. So we talked with the RUS about improving communications, utilizing fiber through our substations, through our facilities, and ultimately to the member home, and they agreed that that was a good purpose for us to pursue. You're looking at the clean power plan in the very near future in terms of what the ramifications might be to the users of electricity. Also in the state of Michigan, looking at a new energy bill, and our need really to help people manage their energy use better going forward. So that did resonate with the RUS, and ultimately, we're financing this project through an RUS work plan loan through the electric side. That provides us with the equity to pursue this project, which is going to be deployed over five years, running about 400 miles of fiber a year. As we're connecting homes, looking at those folks that would enjoy a voice or a data drop. So it's kind of an integrated project. Again, smart grid communications first and foremost for utility purposes, and then voice and data drops beyond that.

Bob Hance: You know our financial modeling bears the fact that we'll be cash positive after three years of building on our project, so we're very confident that despite the fact that we're in rural areas, there is an ability to realize a profit for the entity, so that beyond the five years, we can begin looking at those areas that are not an immediate part of our service footprint. It's been a very good and very positive project for us, and certainly resonates with members and non-members alike.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's clarify though Rural Utility Service financing. This is loan financing, right?

Dave Allen: Yeah, correct. We did receive a small, rural broadband experiment through the FCC. Bob has been very engaged in the past, advancing the notion that non-traditional providers of broadband services should be considered in the Connect America Fund, and as part of that, we applied for that rural broadband experiment, received a little more than $200,000. Probably the better part of that was just becoming eligible for the CAF phase 2 options, which will hopefully happen some time in 2017. But for the most part, yes, we are doing this through member equity, but there is an opportunity to engage CAF phase 2 and receive some funding that will really help us build out a little bit faster and perhaps consider some of the folks in those census blocks that we build out to that are not part of Midwest Energy.

Christopher Mitchell: Bob, I really want to make this very clear for everyone, that even though it took a tremendous amount of investment to take electricity to everyone, I don't think it really cost the American tax payers very much.

Bob Hance: I'm not trying to mix things together too much here. We have roughly $120,000,000 of plant that took us 80 years to build. What's interesting about this project is that although we are telling people that we're going to build 2,000 miles of fiber from scratch, and we're going to do it in five years, it doesn't seem to be fast enough. And the fact that it's nearly a $60,000,000 investment. So it can be done with the help of RUS, with respect to seeing the need and the opportunity, as Dave was projecting, the notion of smart grid and getting connections all the way to the home so that we can deal with in-home devices at some time in the future is invaluable.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. The point that I really want to hit on is that when the federal government is giving out loans, the budgetary impact is quite small compared to other programs. The electric co-ops receive billions of dollars of loans, followed by billions of dollars in repayments over many years and over decades, so the interest rate may have been subsidized, but overall, this type of program seems like a very reasonable investment.

Bob Hance: When you think about bang for the buck, I can't imagine that there is another federal program that you could point to that has been as successful, or as deeply successful as the REA RUS program, bar none.

Christopher Mitchell: That's what I want to hear.

Bob Hance: You think about this over time and what was accomplished with loan dollars as you pointed out may be subsidized a little bit with respect to the interest rates, but when you see what we've accomplished and what we continue to accomplish with those loan dollars, and now carrying on the position as we did with the electric systems now with another product that is becoming more and increasingly important in the mix with respect to services to folks, we're just repeating what we did back in the 30's.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned the CAF 2 dollars. That's one of the ways that the federal communications division is giving out these grants, but as we move into the final question of this show, I want to talk about the response from your members to this service. But first, let's just finish the CAF 2 discussion by noting that the FCC has just given, without any hope of repayment, these are just grants, billions of dollars to the biggest private telephone companies so that they can build out to the obsolete 10 Megabit down, 1 Megabit up standard. You all got $200,000 to deliver much faster connections. Do your members appreciate the difference between what you're doing, versus what that 10 Megabit by 1 Megabit minimum is?

Bob Hance: Chris, I think unfortunately most folks don't get it. Most folks don't really understand what's really happening with Universal Service Fund and now CAF. I think there would be a country-wide outcry! I think you would have pitch forks and other things arriving in our nation's capital if they knew what we know. Dave and I, having gone to the FCC for the last almost four years now and seeing firsthand how quickly it is to throw $30 billion through the fan without ever giving a second thought to what we are getting for the $30 billion other than second class citizenry for our folks getting 10/1 when the rest of the country is moving toward these other standards. It's close to being criminal. I fashion it to be like you just shoved one of those metal objects into the sore part of my mouth. It's just crazy. Even with CAF 2 and the struggles we've had to help them get rules in place so that you have this stupid auction in the first place. And all the restrictions on $2 billion that they never put on the $30 billion. It's just crazy. It's ludicrous.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, let me jump in quickly before you respond. I just want to make sure the people understand that making loan guarantees to co-ops requires a 10% budget hit. That is to say that doing $30 billion in loan guarantees requires budgeting only $3 billion. The $30 billion that is being misused from the CAF, from the Connect America Fund, that could have wired the entire country if it was spent in co-op loan guarantees. So now, Dave, can you please pile on?

Dave Allen: My only point in talking about the $30 billion, which has gone out the last 15 months to the price cap carries and rate of return carriers, is to point back to a conversation I had with Danna MacKenzie, who is the chief of Minnesota's broadband office, and they've set an appropriate benchmark of 25 download and 3 up, state-wide in terms of what they are promoting in the state of Minnesota, which is a national broadband standard. But of course that $30 billion went out with the only expectation that they build out to a 10/1 standard. So I had that chat with her, "Are you frustrated, are you disappointed?" And she said, "Immensely so." If the FCC from a policy standpoint had the intestinal fortitude to set that standard at 25/3, they essentially would have realized their goal well ahead of the date they had set, which I think was 2020 to hit that standard. Our frustration in going in and chatting with the FCC is, let's not set it at 10/1, let's at least set it at the broadband standard of 25/3 so that we can incent people to build out better networks like fiber going forward.

Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting that the Minnesota requirement is not only 25 Megabits by 3, but that you also have to be using a technology that can scale all the way up to a 100 Megabits. I think that's a really good approach.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think that's consistent with the New York standard now too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to make sure that we're wisely investing so that we don't have to spend more in three more years for a new round of upgrades on networks that we've just subsidized. But I want to end on a more positive note. Dave, can you give us a testimonial from your members explaining why this is so important?

Dave Allen: I mentioned that when we were out in Minneapolis. We've actually taken over 100 pages of testimonials in to the FCC and left them with commissioner offices because they do resonate. They hear from us, but to hear from our members, our customers, folks in the rural space, really resonates with those folks. And even now, when we go back out there, they ask if we've updated that because we get these testimonials daily. My favorite, and I'll let Bob chime in with a couple of his, but this person from Metridgeberg said, "We're so pleased with Midwest, as we thought this service would never come down our dirt lane off of a dirt road." I think that really explains what we're doing. We're not going out to the urban areas, areas of high density. We came down a dirt lane off of a dirt road to provide this person with gigabit-capable fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: And Bob, do you also have one that you would like to share?

Bob Hance: The one that's striking to me is this one. Another customer that's hooked up now says, "When you live out in the country, you learn that not all things are easy. Not all things are accessible at a moment's notice. The country teaches you patience and understanding. Today, with the blink of an eye, something that I was told would never happen to the rural people, we have Internet. Not by tether of a phone or an air card with an astronomical price tag on it. Thank you Midwest Connections for being the stand up people that you said you were. I cannot tell you thank you enough."

Dave Allen: I'd just add too, it's interesting how life-changing this is for people in our area. They have been used to poor service, dial-up service, and to have fiber optic available to them has been just amazing for them. It's taken me by surprise in all honesty.

Bob Hance: There is a certain class of people though who live in cities and might be thinking, "What do I get out of it if they have better Internet access out there in the country?" My answer is a thought experiment. What if we did not electrify the country with the REA, the Rural Electrification Administration, and we thereby save a few billions of dollars in federal budgeting over many decades, maybe, we don't even know that we would save that much. But if we did, we would also end up with smaller markets. We wouldn't have people being as productive in the rural areas, and they would not be buying things that other people are producing. And my point is that this is not charity. It's in my self interest, as someone living in St. Paul, to make bigger markets everywhere because we're going to have a better economy.

Dave Allen: We're seeing for the first time in our nation's history the fact that rural areas are losing population. As they continue, births aren't keeping up with the rural out-flight. As people move back to cities and urban centers to avail themselves of services like broadband, that's going to tax those urban centers from an infrastructure standpoint. That should be a concern to urban areas in terms of how to maintain roads, sewer systems, and things like that as people move back to cities.

Bob Hance: I'd like to remind folks, but for rural electrification and now this new valuable service with respect to particularly how farms operate today, we have the food out here. We're the producers!

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the food doesn't just magically appear in Kansas then, I guess! That's a good reminder. I'm excited about your project, and I really want to thank you for joining us on the call. Thank you very much.

Dave Allen: Chris, we have reminders of our past scattered throughout our office of when this co-op was constructing the lines back in the 30's. And one that's really striking to me is a lady who is reaching up to turn on that light bulb for the first time. And that's exactly what this feels like to all of us, and it's really helpful to get the kind of affirmations that we're getting from members. I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm with you. I think sometimes people say that this isn't as big as electricity, but when electricity was first rolling out, people didn't know where that was going to go either. So I think you're doing the right thing. What we have to do is make wise investments, and then let time do its thing.

Dave Allen: I like to think that we spend once. Build once, spend once.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much.

Dave Allen: Thank you, Chris!

Bob Hance: Thanks, Chris!

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Bob Hance, President and CEO from Midwest Energy Cooperative, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance from the cooperative. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family. You can do it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can also subscribe 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 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Midwest Energy Cooperative Connects Rural Michigan - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 225

Telephone and electric cooperatives are making strides in bringing high-quality connectivity to rural areas while national providers stay in the city. This week we speak with two gentlemen from rural southwest Michigan’s Midwest Energy Cooperative: President and CEO Bob Hance and Vice President of Regulatory Compliance Dave Allen.

The electric cooperative has embarked on a project to bring fiber-optic connectivity to its members within its electric distribution grid. The multi-year project will bring better functionality to electric services and high-speed Internet access to areas of the state struggling with yesterday’s technologies. Bob and Dave describe the cooperative’s commitment to it’s members and discuss the deep roots of the cooperative in the region. They also touch on how the project is already improving lives in the areas that are being served.

Bob, Dave, and Chris, also spend some time discussing the difficulties that face rural cooperatives, especially regarding federal funding and its distribution. Serving sparsely populated areas is a challenge. Federal funding is often distributed more favorably to big corporate providers that promise to deliver much slower speeds than cooperatives like Midwest Energy. Co-ops are delivering better services, and building better networks with less federal funding; they also face higher hurdles to obtain that funding.

Why do they do it? Because they are invested in the future of their communities.

Read more about the project at the Midwest Connections Team Fiber website.

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."

Iowa Knows Co-op Connectivity

Once again we return to Iowa to learn about community networks and high-speed connectivity. Home to municipal networks such as in Cedar Falls, Lenox, and Harlan, Iowa also grows publicly owned networks of a different kind - cooperatives’ networks. The Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association (WCTA) provides next-generation connectivity to rural areas, and is now upgrading infrastructure in its service area. WCTA uses Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology to provide Internet access of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). 

Small Towns and Cities To Get An Upgrade

WCTA is now installing fiber in Forest City, home to about 4,000 people and the county seat of Winnebago County.

WCTA General Manager Mark Thoma told the Globe Gazette’s Forest City Summit newspaper, “We have to work closely with the city. Kudos to the city crew for locating (all the utilities). It’s been going very well.”

WCTA intends to install their fiber underground in Forest City and the municipal utilities department is facilitating the cooperative’s efforts by locating current utilities infrastructure. Collaborating will enable WCTA to bury their fiber without disrupting other services.

This upgrade to fiber will replace the copper lines towns served by WCTA, where members still use DSL. Customers in rural areas received an upgrade to FTTH several years ago. 

Rural Areas First

In 2011, WCTA received $19.6 million American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) award for a fiber broadband project in rural areas throughout its service territory. Half of the money was a grant, and the other half was a loan.

While finishing the fiber builds in these rural areas in 2015, WCTA automatically bumped up the speeds of all rural members. Previous top speeds of 15 Mbps jumped up to 100 Mbps via FTTH but the $65 per month subscription rate stayed the same. WCTA's fiber network speeds are symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are the same.

Cooperatives Have Annual Meetings

The WCTA 66th Annual Meeting takes place today; vaudeville performer Peter Bloedel of Minnesota will entertain the members as they decide on the future direction of the co-op. Governed by the people they serve, cooperatives should be invested in building a vibrant future for their communities. 

WCTA is just one of many cooperatives that has taken on a community network project. Last year, telecommunications co-op Wiatel began a $25 million fiber project in western Iowa. Cooperatives are proving to be a promising option in rural areas where big corporations like Comcast, Centurylink, or AT&T don't anticipate the profit margin they need for their shareholders.

To learn more about cooperatives and Internet access, visit our cooperative tag and check out the work of ILSR’s energy program: “Re-Member-ing the Electric Cooperative” on the potential of rural electric cooperatives.

Culver City: Construction Begins For Better Connectivity

Culver City officially broke ground on its new municipal fiber-optic network in August and expects to finish the project within one year. The beginning of construction marked the realization of a process that started some time ago in “The Heart of Screenland.”

Enter Culver Connect

Culver Connect will integrate existing publicly owned fiber to improve connectivity for municipal facilities, the Culver City Unified School District, and local businesses. The design for Culver Connect includes three rings and will add 21 miles to ensure redundancy and expand the footprint of the existing network.

The open access network will connect with carrier hotel One Wilshire and a hub in El Segundo. In addition to improving capacity and spurring economic development, Culver City community leaders want to encourage competition by lowering the cost of entry for Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

In 2013, the city hired a firm to draft a fiber network design and business plan framework. Soon after, members of the business community and leaders in education spoke out in the media, encouraging elected officials to take steps to improve Culver City’s connectivity. In November 2015 the City Council established a Municipal Fiber Network Enterprise Fund to be used for construction costs.

Staff estimated that the capital costs of the network backbone would be approximately $4.9 million and initial lateral builds would be another $2 million. Staff determined operating and maintenance costs would be $150,000 per month and projected revenues from leases after three to four years of operations at around $7.1 million in total. They also estimated that revenues will cover the cost of operation and equipment depreciation once the network is fully operational. The city hopes to lease to ISPs to offer choice to local businesses.

Muni In Muscatine: Upgrades, Speeds Up, Outperforms

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

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

More than a Year in the Making

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

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

Outperforming Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

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

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

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

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

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

Collaboration & Funding

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

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

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

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

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

Montana Coop Turns Up the Speed: 16 Counties, 23,000 Square Miles

Montana may have high speed limits on roads, but this Montana coop’s network will let you surf the web even faster. Triangle Communications received an almost $30 million loan from the USDA to provide rural Central Montana with high-speed Internet access.

Triangle Communications will finish upgrading its aging copper network - a technology mostly used for telephone - to a fiber network that can support both telephone and high-speed Internet. The loan comes from the USDA’s initiative, announced in July, promising $85 million to improve connectivity in rural areas. The Triangle Communications coop is upgrading its entire system spanning 16 counties (that’s more than 23,000 square miles from the Canadian to the Wyoming border!). 

Since 1953, the coop has been at the forefront of changing technologies. It’s based in Havre but expanded in 1994 with the purchase of 13 exchanges from US West (now known as CenturyLink). The coop began upgrading to fiber in 2009 in order to provide its members with state-of-the-art service and technology.

For more information about the network and the award, check out local news coverage of the almost $30 million loan and Triangle Communications’ video.

 

USDA Broadband Funding for Rural Projects; Coops On Top

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:

Alaska

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.

Minnesota

Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million loan.

Northeast Service Cooperative will receive two $3 million grants and, through a partnership with the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, provide broadband service on the the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Montana

Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will upgrade their system with fiber through a $29.95 million loan.

Oklahoma

@Link Services will receive $1.5 million in grants to provide broadband services in Seminole County.

South Carolina

FTC Communications will improves its wireless to 4G/LTE with a $12.38 million loan.

Virginia

Scott County Telephone Cooperative, with a $2.1 million grant, will provide one gigabit to 540 locations in Dickenson County to increase economic development.

Wisconsin

LaValle Telephone Cooperative will use a $7.61 million loan to deploy fiber.

It is no longer surprising to find faster, more affordable, more reliable Internet networks in rural areas served by coopertives. Minnesota's Farmers Mutual Telephone CooperativeCo-Mo Cooperative central Missouri, or Farmer's Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama are only a few we have covered. As large corporate providers fail to provide modern services, rural cooperatives have stepped up to offer services to their members and improve economic development prospects in the communities they serve.