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Connectivity Cornucopia: We Give Thanks!

This time of year, people come together to celebrate the things they are thankful for and appreciate. Here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we want to take a moment to appreciate all the communities, people, and wonderful ideas that help spread the concept of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

A few of us looked into the cornucopia that is feeding the growth of publicly owned Internet networks and picked out some of our favorites. There are more people, places, and ideas than we could write about in one post. Nevertheless, it's always good to step back and consider how the many contributions to the Connectivity Cornucopia accelerate us toward high-quality Internet access for all.

People: Colorado Local Voters

We appreciate the voters in Colorado who chose to reclaim local authority. This year, 26 more counties and municipalities asked voters to opt out of restrictive SB 152, and all chose to take back telecommunications authority. They joined the ranks of a groundswell of local Colorado citizens who have voiced their opinion to Denver - 95 communities in all. They know that they are the best situated to make decisions about local connectivity and, even if they don’t have solid plans in place, want the ability to investigate the options. Colorado voters rock!

Place: Ammon, Idaho  

The unfolding municipal fiber network in the city of Ammon, Idaho (pop. 14,000) continues to attract a steady stream of honors and opportunities. In August, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year.  Two months later, the city said it is partnering in a $600,000 initiative with the University of Utah to research and develop a series of next-generation networking technologies supporting public safety, including broadband public emergency alerts. With Ammon’s new fiber network, residents are giving thanks for a system that allows them, among other things, to change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal.

We give thanks for Ammon’s innovation and their desire to give people choice.

Policy: Clever Conduit Approaches

Multiple communities have created smart conduit policies to bring connectivity to their residents. Conduit is a reinforced tube that protects and guides cables that run underground. Despite how boring conduit policy might sound, it can bring about better connectivity and ensure community control of public infrastructure. Smart conduit policy is a cornerstone for municipal networks and creating infrastructure for potential future partners. For instance, Mount Vernon, Washington, has its own open access network with eight different Internet Service Providers. The city ensures that developers install conduit in all new developments and then turn control of it over to the city. There are many more excellent models of conduit policy, just check out Lincoln, Nebraska; Centennial, Colorado; or Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.

We understand the importance of smart conduit policy and are thankful for the fact that an increasing number of communities are onboard with implementing similar measures.

So Much To Appreciate!

These are only a few of the people, places, and policies that produce better connectivity for local communities. We're thankful for them and for many others as more communities realize the value of publicly owned Internet networks. We wish you a relaxing and warm holiday and hope you have a moment to pause and consider all you have to be thankful for.


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Photo of the turkeys courtesy of Farmgirlmiriam via Pixaby.

Photo of the cornucopia courtesy of Cliparts.co.

Ammon Wins NSF Grant To Pursue Networking Technologies for Public Safety

The city of Ammon, Idaho, continues to garner more recognition and opportunities from its unfolding municipal fiber network.

In a recent news release, Ammon officials announced the city received approximately $600,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to partner with the University of Utah. They will research and develop a series of next-generation networking technologies supporting public safety. 

Pursuing SafeEdge

Called SafeEdge, the nearly initiative will give Ammon residents connected to the city's network the opportunity to participate in the initiative to develop applications such as broadband public emergency alerts. 

Ammon officials said a major focus of the research will be to evaluate the “feasibility of mixing public safety applications with other applications and services,” such as consumer streaming and data sharing, remote classroom access, and dynamic access to judicial functions, including remote arraignments and access to legal representation.

The city added “It is expected that this open access/multiservice approach will improve the economic feasibility of deploying broadband services in small and rural communities by allowing a variety of services to be deployed across the same infrastructure, while at the same time ensuring that public safety applications can function in this environment.”

Three-year Project

The National Science Foundation and US Ignite, an initiative promoting U.S. leadership in developing and implementing next-generation gigabit applications that can be used for social good, are providing nearly $600,000 in funding over a three-year period for the Ammon project. About $235,000 of that funding will go to Ammon as sub awardee, the city said. The project period runs from Oct. 1, 2016 to September 30, 2019.

Other Honors 

The NSF grant to Ammon is the latest honor for the city’s municipal fiber network activities.  In mid-2015, the city won first place in the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Ultra-High Speed Apps competition, which encouraged software developers and public safety professionals to use public data and ultra-high speed systems to create apps to improve criminal justice and public safety operations. We reported that Ammon’s application used gunshot detection hardware and a school’s existing camera system. The School Emergency Screencast Application provides the location of gunshot fire for first responders and transmits live-video and geospatial information so they know what to expect and where to concentrate efforts.

Meanwhile, just two months ago, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year at its annual awards event.

Learn more about Ammon's network, and their public safety efforts in our video:

Ammon Model In Louisiana? Ask The Voters!

Voters in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, will get the chance in December to decide if they wish to invest in a fiber-optic network, reports the Advocate.

Louisiana Looks At Idaho

This past summer, Parish President Kevin Couhig presented the plan to create a new parish fiber optic utility. His plan includes an open access network to draw competition that will be based on the Software-Defined Network (SDN) of the Ammon model:

Couhig’s plan would get away from single Internet service providers, which control speed, innovation, bandwidth, data limits and price. Instead, the ISPs would compete through the parishwide network. Each consumer could control what they would have available through the open access such as internet, phone, video and interactive gaming.

Parish staff worked with a consulting firm for several months to develop a feasibility study, define costs, and draft a network design. They estimate the network would cost a little over $5.7 million and would require about 107 fiber miles. In December voters will decide whether or not to accept a plan to fund the network with a 4-mill property tax levy for five years, beginning in 2017. On September 14th, the Parish Council voted to allow the question to be placed on the December ballot.

Redefining Infrastructure In The Bayou

The city will still need to determine how the state's barriers will affect their plans. West Feliciana Parish is 30 miles north of Baton Rouge and home to approximately 16,500 people. There are about 426 square miles in the parish, which is located along the Mississippi River. In July, when Couhig presented the detailed study to the Parish Council, he expressed his motivation for the project:

“As important, we will bring to our residents economical, modern services in entertainment, data, community and health service capabilities that will be on par with any place in the world…To be successful, we need to grow and maintain all of our types of infrastructure, but in the modern world, that must include broadband capability.”

For more details on Ammon’s SDN model, listen to Christopher talk to Bruce Patterson, the city’s Technology Director, in episode #207 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. You can also check out our video for more on Ammon:

And the Award for Community Broadband Network of the Year Goes to-- Ammon, Idaho!

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recognized Ammon, Idaho’s promise at the 2016 Community Broadband Awards. NATOA named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year

Innovative Ideas in Idaho

It's a great recognition for the innovative little city in Idaho. They have been incrementally building an open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for years. In 2015, they won an award for designing an ultra high-speed application to use the network to coordinate responses to school shootings. And earlier this year, they approved an ingenious funding method: a Local Improvement District (LID). Residents will have the choice of opting into the costs and benefits of the fiber project or opting out completely. 

A New Model

It's all about people's choice; Ammon’s open access model itself empowers community members. Instead of making frustrating phone calls with large corporations, residents can change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal. The infrastructure remains the same, and the providers focus on offering the best customer service. Ammon’s open access model is the virtual end of cable monopolies.

For more details, listen to Ammon’s Technology Director Bruce Patterson explain the project in Community Broadband Bits Podcast episodes 86, 173, and 207. For even more information, see our in-depth coverage on Ammon.

Ammon's Network of the Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 207

On the heals of releasing our video on Ammon, Idaho, we wanted to go a little more in-depth with Bruce Patterson. Bruce is Ammon's Technology Director and has joined us on the show before (episodes 173 and 86). We recommend watching the video before listening to this show.

We get an update from Bruce on the most recent progress since we conducted the video interviews. He shares the current level of interest from the first phase and expectations moving forward.

But for much of our conversation, we focus on how Ammon has innovated with Software-Defined Networks (SDN) and what that means. We talk about how the automation and virtualization from SDN can make open access much more efficient and open new possibilities.

Check out Ammon's Get Fiber Now signup page or their page with more information.

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

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

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

Ammon's Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies

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

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

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

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

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

Ammon's Local Improvement District Gets City Council Blessing

Now that a judge has legally approved it, Ammon is forging ahead with an innovative approach to financing Internet infrastructure in Idaho.

On May 19th, the city council unanimously voted to create a Local Improvement District (LID). Ammon’s decision has secured a way to finance its open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Local Improvement Districts: You're In or You're Out

LIDs have been used for fiber-optic infrastructure in other places, such as New Hampshire and Poulsbo, Washington, but the approach is still not widespread. In Ammon, the city council's action creates a district from five subdivisions, where residents can “opt in” or “opt out” of participation in the FTTH network. The district includes 376 individual properties, and 188 of those property owners have expressed a desire to "opt in" to the benefits, and costs, of the network. Those who have chosen to "opt out" do not use the network, nor do they pay for deployment.

LIDs are specifically designed to take advantage of any boost to local property value -- and studies have linked FTTH with increased local property values. We’ve previously summarized the most common ways communities finance networks, but LIDs are a little different.

  1. The local community creates a “district” to issue improvement bonds. In this case, the district consists of five subdivisions of the city.
  2. Selling those improvement bonds will fund the construction of the local infrastructure project. For Ammon, that’s the open access FTTH network. 
  3. The bonds will then be paid for by an assessment on each of the properties that benefit from the network - only the households that choose to "opt in."

A Few Dollars A Month For Infrastructure

When Ammon’s IT Director, Bruce Patterson, joined the Community Broadband Bits Podcast in Episode 173, he explained Ammon's LID plan. Chris brought in real-world examples and questions of what LIDs mean for individual homeowners.

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Chris Mitchell: Basically I could opt in and then there would be, based on the number of people that are opting in and the cost, that would determine how much it would cost for me and I could either write you a check for all of it, or I could put it on my property taxes?

Bruce Patterson: That's exactly right so if you want to pay for all of it, part of it up front, you can let it be bonded for. You can go down and pay a portion of it and then it's just collected as we say through your regular assessment on your property tax until it's paid off.

Patterson estimated that monthly assessment on property taxes for those who "opt in" would probably be about $15 to $20. Only those residents who "opt in" have an assessment on their property taxes. If a resident does not want the fiber, there is no assessment on that resident’s property tax.

To connect to the Internet, residents will also need to sign up with one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offering retail services via the open access fiber network. The city will also offer a low cost, no frills, basic option that will allow those that "opt in" the ability to perform basic tasks, like check email. 

Next Steps

Now that Ammon city council has created the LID, residents in those five subdivisions will have to choose whether to “opt in” or “opt out” of the FTTH project. Individual residents must now decide if they want next-generation connectivity. With 188 of 376 individual property owners "opting in" (a take rate of about 50 percent) Ammon should soon have that last mile up and running.

OK, Just What Does Open Access Mean Anymore?

In our experience, just about every community considering building a community network considers open access. They want to enable new choices for services and often would prefer the local government avoid directly competing with existing service providers, for a variety of reasons. However, we are only tracking 30 open access networks on our just-released Open Access resource page.

Many of the communities that start off enthusiastic about open access ultimately decide to have a single service provider (themselves or a contractor) to have more certainty over the revenues needed to pay operating expenses and debt. We believe this will change as the technology matures and more communities embrace software-defined networks (SDN) -- but before tackling that topic, we think it is important to discuss the meaning of open access.

On a regular basis, I get an email from one deep-thinking person or another that says, "That network isn't really open access." They almost always make good points. The problem is that different people embrace open access for different reasons - they often have different expectations of outcomes. Understanding that is key to evaluating open access.

How Many ISPs?

One of the key questions centers on how many providers a household is likely to be able to choose from. Various factors, including the network architecture and economics of becoming a service provider, will influence this outcome.

Some communities simply seek to avoid a monopoly network - they are focused on the idea of potential competition. For instance, we believe Huntsville's model and agreement with Google can be considered open access because any party could lease fiber from the utility to compete with Google. However, we believe the costs of doing so by using that network architecture make robust competition unlikely.

If Google is a strong competitor in Huntsville, they will likely not face significant competition from other ISPs on the utility fiber though AT&T and Comcast will still use their networks to compete. But in the event that Google is not a strong competitor, the door will be open to other ISPs to give people a better choice. It is extremely unlikely that this arrangement would give residents many choices for Internet access, but it is an improvement over the one or two pathetic incumbent options most of us face. Google is left with an incentive to meet user expectations, knowing that it could face competition if people are unsatisfied.

The UTOPIA model has resulted in many more choices for both businesses and residents, but most of those businesses are offering similar services at similar prices. The fact that it does not carry a "marquee" provider like Google or a national cable company on it may make brand awareness (and therefore marketing) more difficult, but it also provides opportunities for excellent local firms like XMission to thrive.

Simultaneous Services

This leads into a second question: can a premise subscribe to multiple service providers simultaneously or do they have to choose one? This may sound like a dumb question at first - why would you want to subscribe to two different ISPs? Aside from perhaps wanting video or phone services from one and Internet access from another, many are hoping to see more innovation on this front. We have written frequently on Ammon, Idaho, because they are doing some of the best work in this regard.

The ability to offer simultaneous services depends greatly on the underlying technology. Not all FTTH networks can give ISPs the tools they need to have confidence in delivering a high quality product reliably to their subscribers. Communities that want to ensure they have this capacity should pick a consultant that deeply understands these issues and has worked previously on open access.

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The Holy Grail among those who prioritize this flavor of open access is to make it very easy for network subscribers to manage their own subscriptions - changing providers on the fly (and again, see Ammon for a model). This approach would allow ISPs to specialize and greatly encourage innovation, particularly for niche services. You might subscribe to an ISP that specializes in great connections for video games while also having a part of your connection dedicated to a home alarm system and still be able to initiate a high quality teleconference for health care that wasn't transported on the public Internet.

Market Entry Costs and Consequences

A key question about open access comes down to market entry costs. How much will it cost an ISP to serve potential subscribers? In Huntsville, the costs of building drops suggests it will still cost hundreds of dollars per sub, which is less than the $1,000+ per sub that it would likely cost to build a network from scratch.

We would generally expect that the lower the cost for an ISP to connect subscribers, the more ISPs would be on the network. However, there is an initially surprising problem that can arise when the cost to offer services is very low, something occasionally called "ruinous competition." This is used to various levels of seriousness but represents a common economic problem: if a product has little differentiation (like an ISP offering only Internet access), then subscribers are likely to decide on the ISP based solely on cost. Over time, ISPs will cut prices until the margin all but disappears, which runs most of the providers out of business (or they consolidate) and the competition effectively disappears.

One of the key points of the “ruinous competition” problem is whether ISPs are effectively providing the same thing (generic Internet access) or services (home security, remote backup, help desk, telemedicine, etc.). To the extent that they are offering different kinds of services, we can avoid that problem. However, it is not clear that most networks today are technically capable of allowing service providers to differentiate their services in any significant way, which is again why Ammon's forward-thinking software-defined networking approach is so important.

Like other aspects of technology, open access will evolve with innovation. For now, open access means different things to different people who are often seeking different outcomes.

Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

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

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

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

We cover: 

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

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!

Legal Eagles: Ammon FTTH Can Fly As Planned

Ammon now has judicial confirmation to move ahead on their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project.

As we reported earlier this year, Ammon's Fiber Optic Department, led by IT Director Bruce Patterson, is on the verge of commencing the next phase of its incremental network deployment. Bruce explained to Chris in Episode #173 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, how the city will create a utility and residents who choose to participate will pay to have the network connected to their homes. The first area where FTTH will be deployed includes approximately 300 properties.

Innovative Participation Model

As Bruce put it:

"…[I]t seems logical that since fiber to your home raises your property value that we'd find some way to bond for that and put the payment for that bond as on assessment on your property tax because it does actually increase your property value so that's our goal. We do that with what they call a local improvement district."

Ammon intends to issue bonds that will then be paid with funds from assessments levied on the properties of those who wish to connect to the network. If a property owner wants to connect to the network, they will also become a "Utility Member" and will pay a monthly fee to use the service. Ammon's FTTH network will be open access; the city will not provide retail services but will maintain and operate the infrastructure. Residents will subscribe to the services offered by ISPs that operate over the network.

Ammon also intends to offer a low-cost option that will allow Utility Members to access basic functions, such as checking email, messaging, and file transfers without the need to subscribe to an ISP. Their plan will allow people in the community who cannot afford more advanced services to still have access to basic Internet tools.

In order to determine which neighborhoods want fiber, Ammon asks residents to sign up so they know where to aim the next build.

Sweet Validation

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As Ammon has developed their open access network from vision to achievement, they have taken several bold steps. The city won an award for its school emergency app, took over to connect local schools when the state educational network went dark, and experimented with partitioning fibers for multiple services. It's no surprise that Ammon's approach to financing was not typical.

As pioneers know, there can be something unexpected around the next tree. City officials chose to obtain validation from the state court prior to moving forward rather than risk investing time, money, and effort into an uncertain project.

On February 29th, District Judge Joel E. Tingey decreed that the city has the authority to construct, operate, and maintain the FTTH network under state law. He went on to state that their plan for financing under the Local Improvement District Act is authorized and that the bonds issued will be valid and enforceable.

Read the Judgement here and the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Decree here.

Onward And Upward For Ammon...And Others?

Now that the state court has determined that Ammon has the authority to enter into this venture with this model, perhaps other communities will feel more confident forging ahead. While this ruling applies only to Ammon, we hope it will help reinforce innovative thinking in the "Gem State."