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Missoula Schools Set To Save With Self-Provisioning

The Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) plans to save $150,000 per year by investing in its own fiber infrastructure. Over a 20-year period school officials expect to save approximately $3 million.

Fiber For Education And Savings

MCPS will be the first in the state to self-provision its wide area network (WAN), the connections between district facilities. Right now, the school pays approximately $287,000 per year to lease its WAN connections and for Internet access; about $200,000 of that figure is dedicated to leasing the WAN.

School officials were already leasing lit fiber service when they began investigating options to compare cost and service. They also looked at leasing dark fiber, which would mean they would need to maintain the equipment to light the fiber themselves, and investing in an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU). The IRU would give the school district the ability to use a designated number of fiber strands to use as they wished for a fixed period of time. 

As other school districts around the country are discovering, the best choice for them was to own the infrastructure and control it themselves:

"We're saving the district $3 million over the next 20 years in the general fund that will be able to be allocated to other things," Littman said of self-provisioned fiber. "It's more than $3 million, actually. The reason we say we'll only end up saving the general fund $3 million in the end is because we do have some annual maintenance costs to incur to protect the fiber."

Leasing lit fiber for the speeds MCPS needs would have cost $1.5 million to $3.1 million for only a five-year contract. A dark fiber 10-year contract would have cost about $3 million.

Right now, the school pays approximately $287,000 per year to lease its WAN connections and for Internet access; about $200,000 of that figure is dedicated to leasing the WAN. The school will still need to contract for Internet access from an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Lake Oswego School District in Oregon recently discovered the cost benefits from ownership, when they discovered they would pay 89 percent less by self-provisioning than by leasing from Comcast. School districts sometimes partner with municipalities and integrate school fiber assets for larger municipal fiber projects, as in the case of Ottawa, Kansas. Whatever the future holds for MCPS, they will be saving significantly and having an easier time budgeting without the threat of rising leasing costs that they can’t control.

E-Rate Cutting Cost To Community

The cost of the project is $3.2 million, but the district has applied for an E-rate reimbursement for $1.8 million. E-rate, the federal program that helps school pay for telecommunications costs, now allows schools to apply funding to infrastructure investment. Each district's reimbursement rate is based on the percentage of students considered lower-income. Last year, voters approved $158 million in bonds reports the Great Falls Tribune, and the plan was included in that figure; funding for the project appears secure.

Speed For Students

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The 21-mile, underground network will have an immediate impact, reports the Missoulian. The WAN will connect a total of 21 MCPS facilities when it’s completed and increase speeds from 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 10 Gigabits (1,000 Mbps) per second - a 100x capacity increase on the WAN.

Even though construction is not complete, students are already feeling the impact:

In Sentinel High teacher Dan Lande's networking class, students conducted a speed test and found their network was pushing close to 1 gbps. He emailed MCPS' technology staff, shocked by the increased speed.

"We were able to renegotiate our agreement in the last nine months with one of our providers to increase speeds to 1 gbps," [Hatton Littman, director of technology and communication] said. "We had a signed contract with them three years ago, and the price we were paying for 200 [Mbps] was closer to the market price of 1 [Gbps].

"It was the geek version of watching a room full of kids watch the touchdown-scoring goal of the Super Bowl. They were so excited about seeing the data transmission speeds we could accomplish."

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.

Duck River Co-op Considering Rural Fiber Future

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

Exploring Added Value

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

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

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

Within The Confines Of The Law

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

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

From the announcement:

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

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

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

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

Action In The State Capitol?

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

Loveland On The Trail Of Better Connectivity

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

Examining Assets, Analyzing Options

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

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

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

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

Staying Competitive

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

Things Are Rockin' In Colorado

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

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

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.

From Ghost Towns to Fiber Towns, A Texas Cooperative Looks to the Future

Amid Ghost Towns in northern Texas, a local telephone cooperative looks to bring next-generation technology to rural communities. In August 2015, Brazos Communications, based out of Olney, Texas, announced its plans to build a fiber network throughout its sparsely populated service area.

A year later, in August 2016, the project is well underway. Brazos Communications has completed construction in two of the more populous towns (Archer City and Olney) and has begun installing fiber in the community of Newcastle

The Fiber Project

Brazos Communications keeps locals apprised of the details of the project through their blog on BrazosNet.com and their social media accounts. The telephone cooperative’s service area covers many small communities, the largest of which is Olney with about 3,000 people. 

Previously, the communities only had access to the slow DSL network through Brazos Communications' old network. Last year, the cooperative realized it was time for a forward-looking change. They began to replace the DSL with a new fiber network to offer better, more reliable high-speed services.

And this summer, Brazos Communications teamed up with ice cream truck Pop’s Homemade Ice Cream to celebrate the successful completion of construction in Archer City. As Archer County News reported, residents could learn about the new fiber plans while eating delicious, cool ice cream. Brazos offers symmetric service (the same upload and download speed) ranging from 10 Mbps for $59.95 to 100 Mbps for $199.95. 

Cooperative Connectivity

This connectivity could bring new life to this region that has been losing population ever since the end of the early 20th century oil boom. The communities of Elbert and Jermyn combined have a population of less than 100 people. Meanwhile, nearby Orth, Texas, never recovered and is now home to only a cemetery. Improved Internet access could play an integral role in supporting these small rural towns so they can avoid the fate of Orth.

Across the U.S., rural cooperatives have started building fiber networks to improve their communities. Some are electric cooperatives such as Co-Mo Coop in Missouri, while others are telephone cooperatives like Paul Bunyan Communications in Minnesota. Co-ops allow those obtaining services to also be owners, as in the case of Greater Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative, which focuses specifically on bringing members better connectivity. Cooperatives are bringing next-generation technology to their members and building a brighter fiber future.

Push Poll And Passion: Network Will Expand in Roanoke County

The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) network is live in Virginia, and the state’s cable-telco lobby is not happy. Despite the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (VCTA) attempts to turn people against the network, local leaders in Roanoke County decided to help fund further expansion.

As part of their $183 million budget, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors included $3.4 million to bring the network into the county, with economic development driving the vote. From the Roanoke Times coverage of the vote:

“There is so much that is great that is going on in Roanoke County,” [Supervisor Joe McNamara] said. “Whether it’s what we’re doing for community development with our strategic planning, what we’re doing from an economic development standpoint, what we’ve done with allocating money toward storm water management. I really see broadband as just one area of the budget.”

How Did This Come About?

The network had started out as a joint project among the cities of Salem and Roanoke and the counties of Botetourt and Roanoke. Both counties dropped from the project, leaving the cities to do it themselves. Now with the network live, Roanoke County is reconsidering its previous hesitation.

In late April 2016, the RVBA celebrated the official lighting of the 47-mile fiber network. Fittingly, the first customer is the Blue Ridge PBS station: the local publicly-owned network is serving the connectivity needs of local public television. The overall goal, however, is economic development, and the RVBA intends to sign up 60 small and large customers in the next year and a half. In six years, they expect the network to break even and be self-sustaining.

Questionable Questions

That’s concerning to the state’s cable-telco lobby. VCTA, whose top donors are Comcast and Cox, hired a team of telemarketers to present a simple, yet biased, survey to county residents. The VCTA hired a telemarketing firm for a push poll to sway county residents, and the Roanoke Times Editorial Board is pushing for the real questions.

The Roanoke Times Editorial Board, however, called out the validity of the push poll and shared some of the facts and the benefits of the new network. Just check out some of the leading questions included in the poll as reproduced in the Roanoke Times:

“A recent report by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that business leaders universally cite inadequate airline service as the most serious problem faced by the region; noting that it has a major impact on recruiting and retaining professionals and businesses, with that in mind, which of the following you prefer be done by the Roanoke County government for the currently proposed funding of $3.4 million dollars --- invest in efforts to improve the region’s inadequate airline service or create a redundant broadband network?”

This push poll is trying to sway public opinion against expanding the network by calling it “redundant” or "repetitive," ignoring the fact that redundancy is important in infrastructure. Airline service is a major concern, but affordable high-speed Internet access is also good for economic development. Clearly, this question makes the incorrect assumption that people answering the poll are too unsophisticated to make the connection between connectivity and the needs of businesses.

Broadband vs. Ice Cream

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The Roanoke Times has provided searing responses to the anti-community network arguments. Their editorial piece from a few weeks ago detailed how a community-owned network is different than a publicly-owned ice-cream shop. Apparently, one of the Roanoke County Supervisors had made such an argument. (We couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.)

The fight that’s going down in Roanoke includes such epic quotes as this one from the Roanoke Times Editorial piece about ice cream: 

“Municipal broadband may or may not make sense for a particular community, but the idea is not exactly one being pushed by beret-capped socialists quoting ‘Das Kapital.’ On the contrary, it’s cold-eyed disciples of Adam Smith — specifically business leaders, the captains of the private sector — who are usually the most enthusiastic champions.”

Weighing Options? Consider the Questions

The Roanoke Times Editorial Board's latest piece urged the supervisors to consider the real questions:

“The city obviously felt the best way to be economically competitive was through the broadband authority and its open-access network; does the county see a way to achieve the same — or better — results through a purely private-sector approach?”

This is what localities need to be asking themselves as they see their neighbors form community networks. What are the paths to affordable high-speed Internet access? And what makes the most sense for our communities?

Addendum: The cable companies like to claim that municipal fiber networks are "redundant" but they actually aren't... unless you believe an 18 wheeler truck is redundant of a bicycle or a container ship is redundant of a cabin cruiser. An all-fiber network is next-generation infrastructure that aims to provide a real choice in communities monopolized by last-generation cable technology. But don't take my word for, listen to Slick Sam...

Better Connectivity, Better Public Safety

For public safety, fiber networks can offer new opportunities and improve existing services. Last year, Ammon, Idaho, created an award-widding, high-speed application to provide real-time information about school shooters to emergency responders. This year, Chattanooga is continuing to improve its video infrastructure at public housing.

The police force for the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) now use fiber connectivity to identify and locate suspects - protecting victims and witnesses who fear having to testify in court.

Fiber For Reliable Cameras

The Times Free Press reported on how the CHA has already installed over 50 high-resolution digital cameras in half of its family housing sites. The old cameras were connected via a wireless network, which occasionally lost signal.  All the new cameras are hooked up to a fiber network - a huge improvement in reliability. Officers can now view images from the new cameras with smartphones, tablets, and other computers. Rather than having to return to the precinct, law enforcement can see images while they are still at the site.

Installing the 50 high-resolution digital cameras cost $200,000. In an effort to continue improving video evidence, the CHA has recently applied for a $5,000 grant from the Tennessee Municipal League. With a local match of $5,000, the CHA will upgrade the video equipment in some of the elderly high-rise buildings.

The Digital Video Recording As The Witness

Reaction to the presence of surveillance cameras at the CHS facilities varies. While some people know the footage will help prosecute those who commit crimes, they don't believe the cameras will deter criminal activity. Others feel safer with the cameras in place. 

Video footage is evidentiary and often considered more reliable than eyewitness testimony. While prosecuting those that harm people living at CHS facilities and deterring crime are important, the primary goal is to create a safer environment for residents. Without the added pressure to testify, people who experience criminal activity at CHS facilities can move on with their lives with one less thing to worry about.

Grass Will Be Greener With FairlawnGig In Ohio

Fairlawn, Ohio, a quaint little city in Northern Ohio, it is about to get a big Gig – lightning fast Internet speeds of up to one Gigabit (1000 Megabits) per second (Gbps) – for $75 a month. The city has considered the prospect of such a network since last year, and now the community is moving forward.

On April 4th, Fairlawn City Council unanimously approved several ordinances to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network (FTTH) called “FairlawnGig.” For financing, the network will use revenue bonds in an agreement with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

A New FTTH Muni

In November 2015, Fairlawn hired a consultant and envisioned a public-private partnership for the FTTH plan of FairlawnGig. Now, however, these ordinances ensure that the $10 million network that will begin construction in May 2016 will in fact be a municipal network. The ordinances enable the city to enter into a contract with a firm to design and construct the network in the way that best meets the community’s needs.

Currently, the prices are established as:

  • Residential 1 Gbps – $75
  • Residential 100 Mbps - $55
  • Residential 30 Mbps - $30

All speeds will be symmetrical, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. The network will also offer phone service for an extra $25 a month. Businesses have similar speeds for prices between $90 and $500.

FairlawnGig will serve not only the 7,500 residents of Fairlawn, but it will also provide connectivity to the Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Joint Economic Development District. Ohio communities use these sort of districts to share infrastructure improvement projects.

From Vision to Reality

After thanking the City Council for passing the ordinances that have enabled the FTTH project, Fairlawn Mayor William J. Roth, Jr. further reiterated the purpose of the network:

“Our vision to make world-class, high-speed Internet services available to the residents and businesses of Fairlawn is now a reality. FairlawnGig will deliver a faster, better, and different Internet service from a trusted local provider, and will significantly aid in our efforts to promote economic development and commercial and residential growth in the City of Fairlawn.”

To learn more about the network and keep up to date on the project, check out FairLawnGig.net, the new network’s website.

Sweet Sixteen: Waverly Utilities Hooks Up First Fiber Customers

This week in Waverly, Iowa, the local electric utility, Waverly Utilities, hooked up the first customers for its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. It’s been a long time coming for the town of 10,000 people. 

16 Years Ago: A Vision

The community first had the idea back in 2000 when they voted to form a municipal telecommunications utility after incumbent providers proved a letdown.  Reacting to the vote, those incumbent providers improved their networks a bit, so Waverly Utilities decided to hold off on building a fiber network. 

In 2013, residents and businesses found that the incumbent providers were again not providing necessary connectivity. Taking matters into their own hands, they pushed to create a new, publicly owned network. By 2015, the community had secured revenue bonds for the $12 million project.

Today: A Reality

Waverly Utilities already has 1,100 customers signed up to receive the service, and more homes and businesses will be connected over the next three months. By July 1st, Waverly Utilities’ network will be fully operational, delivering the next-generation connectivity that residents have long been waiting for.

For more about Waverly's project, take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Mike Litterer, who was serving as Interim General Manager of Waverly Light and Power in 2013. He talked with Chris during Episode #53 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.