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Highland Telephone Cooperative Gains Gigabit Recognition

The NTCA-Rural Broadband Association this month awarded the Highland Telephone Cooperative (HTC) of Sunbright, Tennessee, its national certification as a “Gig-capable” provider, reports the Independent-Herald.

HTC serves Scott and Morgan counties in Tennessee and McCreary County in Kentucky and is now one of 85 Gig-certified company/cooperative providers in the nation. The certification recognizes rural communities that are at the cutting-edge of broadband technology, offering Internet service of up to at least 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Megabits per second or Mbps). The association launched this national campaign in the fall of 2015. 

Years of Planning

HTC completed its $66 million fiber-optic network within the last year; 1 Gig capacity Internet service is available to all 16,5000 members reports the Independent-Herald.  The six-year project upgrades the cooperative’s old copper network. Highland Telephone CEO Mark Patterson: 

"This gigabit certification caps off years of careful planning, investing and building a brand-new fiber network in our area...All along, we knew our commitment was worth the effort so our friends and families in this area could keep their rural lifestyle without sacrificing world-class connectivity."

The upgrade included more than 2,700 miles of fiber by the cooperative's crews and contractors — enough to stretch from Highland's office in Sunbright to Vancouver in British Columbia, the Independent-Herald reported.

"Our area lacks interstates and many economic advantages that other communities enjoy, and we've suffered through some extremely high unemployment in recent years," Patterson said. "An asset like a gigabit-capable network can be our competitive edge when it comes to bringing in industry and growing existing businesses."

85 Gig Networks

To date, the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association has recognized 85 companies and cooperatives from 26 states as Gig-capable. The list includes 26 recipients in Iowa and six from Minnesota. Among the Minnesota honorees is Paul Bunyan Communications headquartered in Bemidji.  

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Across the nation, more and more telecom cooperatives are helping bring high-speed connectivity to rural America. They are filling the void created by large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who generally consider it financially unattractive to make major broadband investments in sparsely populated areas.

The latest FCC annual broadband progress report estimates 34 million Americans, or about 10 percent of the nation’s populace, lacks access to 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up service, the agency’s current definition of what constitutes basic broadband service. Those numbers likely understate the true situation, however, as they are based on form 477 data provided by ISPs and national providers often overstate their coverage based on census blocks. For more on Form 477 data, check out episode #224 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher interviewed our Research Associate H.R. Trostle, who studied mountains of data for her report on connectivity in North Carolina.

Cooperatives Work!

In October, we noted that it was National Cooperative Month and highlighted a long list of cooperatives now providing next-century Internet connectivity. We expect that list to grow as rural communities recognize the value of cooperatives in bringing better connectivity to rural areas.

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.

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at HarlanNet.com.

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.

In Rural Idaho, Co-op Delivers the Fiber

Co-op subscribers in Challis, Idaho are set to see faster speeds as Custer Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (CTCI) gained permission from city officials to install fiber-optic cable to local homes. With the member-owned telecommunications cooperative expanding its fiber optic network throughout Custer and Lemhi Counties, local residents will benefit from a future-proof network that promises higher speeds and low prices. 

How Did We Get Here?

The rural towns on the eastern side of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range are remote, sparsely populated, and mountainous - all factors which scare away investment from large Internet service providers (ISPs). Yet, they will witness construction of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, something that even their urban counterparts rarely see. CTCI, which has been delivering telecommunications services to the community since 1955, will provide 1,253 co-op members in Custer County and Lemhi County with high-quality Internet connectivity at competitive prices.

CTCI currently provides download speeds of 6-15 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 1 Mbps on its aging coax-copper network. Their initial goal is to achieve 100 Mbps on a 100 percent fiber-optic network, with speeds ultimately reaching 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) (or 1,000 Mbps). The co-op’s pricing chart currently lists a 100 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload fiber connection at $279.95/month. 

Federal Funds Point in the Right Direction

CTCI receives federal funding through the Universal Service Fund (USF), an FCC program designed to improve Internet connectivity in the rural U.S. CTCI’s receives the funding for operating expenses and investments because of the cooperative's contribution to the public benefit as stated in a 2012 report to the Universal Service Administrative Corporation (USAC):

“In light of Custer's longstanding record of outstanding past service, and its plans to continue upgrading, improving, and maintaining its network for the benefit of its customers, there is no doubt that Custer's status as an ETC [Eligible Telecommunications Carrier] is consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

As a member of Syringa Networks, a consortium of 12 Idaho networks, CTCI leases special access lines to community anchor institutions like hospitals, schools, and public land managers across Idaho. Together, USF funding and access charges amount to 45 percent of annual CTCI revenue. Subscriber Internet access accounts for 12 percent of total revenue. 

Fiber in Lenox, Iowa

When community leaders in Lenox, Iowa, gathered together to examine the community's cable TV options in the 1980s, they probably didn't expect their decision to impact local Internet access. Fast-forward 30 years, and this town of 1,400 people now has one of the most sought after forms of Internet access infrastructure: Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Lenox Municipal Utilities owns and operates a FTTH network that offers symmetrical speeds to hundreds of customers in town. It’s just one of many communities around the nation that have invested in this rugged, future-proof technology.

Same Utility, Changing Technology

We spoke with the Lenox Municipal Utilities General Manager John Borland who graciously provided some of the history of the network.

Since the early 1900s, Lenox has operated its own electric and water systems. These essential services enabled the community to thrive in the southern plains of Iowa. Eventually, a local entrepreneur decided to build and operate a TV system to ensure that the Lenox community stayed connected. In the 1980s, the town purchased the coaxial network from the owner who was ready to sell the system, but wanted to keep ownership within the community. Unfortunately, Borland didn’t know the identity of the entrepreneur whose investment eventually led to top-notch connectivity in this most unexpected place.

By the late 1990s, the network needed replacing, and nationwide, communities had already begun to realize the importance of Internet access. The incumbent Internet service provider, Frontier, offered dial-up and some DSL. Anticipating future need, Lenox decided to rebuild the entire network with fiber. 

Better Connectivity in the Community

In 2005, the community voted on a referendum to enable the utility to provide Internet service; it was one of many towns voting that year to ensure local control. The FTTH build cost about $1.5 million, which they funded through municipal revenue bonds.

Farmers Mutual Telephone Company ran a fiber line to Lenox, ensuring middle mile connectivity. By 2008, Lenox Municipal Utilities had the FTTH system up and running, bringing high-speed Internet to residents and businesses.

Now, Lenox Municipal Utilities offers triple play: television, telephone, and symmetrical Internet service, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. They also provide bundled packages for customers who want to purchase all three services. The network has about 450 customers for their Internet service, and several larger businesses have dedicated lines. 

Lenox is just one of the many small communities that offer next-generation high-speed connectivity in Iowa. For more stories about these self-reliant Iowa communities, check out our past stories in the Iowa tag.

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.” 

Spencer, Iowa, Keeps Building

This month, Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) will continue to expand the town’s fiber network. The steady incremental build will bring better Internet access to residents, business, and municipal facilities in the northwest Iowa town.

Incremental Approach

The Spencer Daily Reporter wrote about how SMU is connecting more residents with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) one step at a time. The municipal utility broke the project into four phases.

Phases I and II included 2,700 homes and businesses. Phase III, which begins this month, will impact more than 1,100 homes and businesses. Phase IV will finish extending FTTH service to the rest of the city.

The project will replace the existing telecommunications infrastructure installed in the late 1990s. Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities described the network's history in our Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2012.

Evolving Needs, Changing Technology

Spencer Municipal Utilities marketing and community relations manager, Amanda Gloyd, said to the Spencer Daily Reporter:

"Just like internet service has evolved from dial up to digital service lines and cable modem, fiber will give customers the next level of service to continue to improve the way they live, work, and play and we are continuing to build out this service throughout the community of Spencer."

Spencer, like many other small towns, chose to invest in Internet network infrastructure so residents and businesses in this rural area could get fast, affordable, reliable services. Subscribers appreciate the excellent customer service that comes with their local, publicly owned network.

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Before We Leave

In keeping with an Internet tradition, we want to mention Spencer's other sensation, Dewey the library cat. The little orange fluff-ball ended up in the public library's drop-box in 1988, and he was adopted by the library staff as "supervisor of staff." Dewey Readmore Books went on to become the publicity darling of the library cat tradition. He was featured in cat magazines, documentaries, and (of course) books.

Even though Dewey has passed on, cute cat videos will live forever, and Spencer's awesome FTTH will help keep his memory alive.

Photo of Dewey courtesy of the Spencer Public Library

Alaska Co-Op Upgrading to Fiber

It isn't very often we have the chance to share stories from the "Last Frontier," but a cooperative in the Valdez area is making news with a planned upgrade to fiber this summer.

DSL to Fiber

According to the Valdez Star, Copper Valley Telecom (CVT) subscribers will be enjoying a switch from old copper DSL Internet access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) when CVT upgrades its system. The new technology will also improve telephone service.

"Once complete, all voice and data will be delivered to the home over fiber optic line and the new electronic interface," CVT said. "Modems will also be replaced."

"There is no cost to the customer for the fiber installation," [CEO Dave] Dengel stated. "Customers will not be asked to pay for the new fiber or the electronics required for voice and Internet access."

Increasing Role of Co-Ops

CVT has served co-op members for more than 50 years with telephone service in the Valdez area and also serves the Copper River Valley and Cordova. Co-ops are bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas across the U.S. and we expect to see more upgrades as existing co-ops switch to fiber. Co-ops know that their future depends on the future of their members because they are members, too.

As CVT Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dengel, put it, "By upgrading our network from copper to fiber, Copper Valley Telecom is preparing the community for the future."

Barry Electric Co-Op Goes Fiber Optic

A Missouri electric cooperative has set out to bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to its members. Barry Electric Cooperative began deploying its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network on February 1st throughout Barry County. 

Barry Electric Cooperative is on track to enact its 5-year fiber network plan, mixing aerial and underground deployment, in eight phases. To manage the operation, the cooperative has created a subsidiary called goBEC. 

Fiber in the Sky and Under the Feet

goBEC’s manager JR Smith explained to the Cassville Democrat:

"Our plan is to give every BEC member the availability to high-speed broadband service by installing a fiber optic cable directly into each home and business. That will be close to 1,100 miles of fiber."

Although a daunting task, goBEC already has a head start. It’s already overcome two recurring hurdles in the deployment of new fiber networks: Rights-of-Way regulation and utility pole access. Barry Electric Cooperative owns all the utility poles and has access to the necessary Rights-of-Way for the project. While underground deployment can protect fiber optic cable from squirrels and storms, connecting the cables to utility poles can speed-up network deployment. The cooperative will bury some fiber underground when necessary, but its service territory is large. goBEC wants to move quickly to get members connected ASAP so will bury and hang fiber.

Co-op members have been asking for better Internet access since 2010, and the cooperative hopes to have the first phase completed by late Fall 2016. They will offer triple-play (phone, TV, and high quality Internet access). All speeds are symmetrical, so speeds are the same on the download and the upload.

The co-op plans to make the most of the new speed enabled by FTTH. From the Democrat:

Smith said pricing is not yet available, but the lowest Internet service package will be 250 megabytes per second, and there will be broadband Internet service offered.

"That is 250Mbps up and 250Mbps down, he said. "Our highest Internet package will be 1 [gigabyte per second].

Barry Electric is committed to enabling access to these services for even its most rural members as goBEC manager Smith pointed out in the Cassville Democrat:

"This is a five-year project and will give the availability to connect every single BEC member, no matter how far deep in this beautiful country you live. If you have our electric service, you will be able to get the same fiber optic service as the ones in town."