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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 228

This is episode 228 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager David Young of Lincoln, Nebraska, describes the city's work with local Internet Service Provider, Allo Communications. Listen to this episode here. 

Listen to, or read the transcript for, episode 182 in which David Young, Mike Lang, and Steve Huggenberger discuss conduit policy in more detail.

 

David Young: Engaging your provider, engaging your community upfront and deciding what your model should be and then creating a plan and executing that plan is very important.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 228 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez . A number of states have laws on the books that obstruct local governments from directly providing high quality Internet access to businesses and residents, or even partnering with local providers. Nebraska happens to be one of them. In Lincoln the community found a way to work within the confines of the law by using publicly owned conduit and creating a welcoming environment for private Internet Service Providers. As a result, Lincoln has entered into an agreement with the local provider Allo Communications who will use the conduit to build its Fiber-to-the-Home network. David Young, Lincoln's Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager talks with Chris this week. David discusses the early days of the project and how it has evolved. He also shares more information about the franchise agreement and more about the partner Lincoln chose. Be sure to take a few moment and listen to Chris' interview with David and several of his colleagues in episode 182 from last December. Now here are Chris and David Young, Lincoln, Nebraska's Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager talking about the community's conduit network and how they are capitalizing on it to bring better connectivity and technology to Lincoln.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with David Young the Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager for the city of Lincoln and the public works department. Welcome back to the show.

David Young: Hi Chris, how are you?

Chris Mitchell: I'm doing well. I'm excited to speak with you again. Last time we had you on the show was the day after my son was born because he came a little bit early and I really wanted to get that interview in. I'm a little less frazzled today, although once again some traumatic events this week as we're recording the week of the election.

David Young: Yes. I did enjoy seeing your son at the Broadband Communities conference, good looking kid. It looks like he's very healthy.

Chris Mitchell: Yes. Yes, he's doing well. Now I wanted to note that since we spoke you've become a bit of a trade show hopper. You were at the NTIA in Big Sky Missoula where we served on a panel together, and then I think you knocked them dead here in Minneapolis for the Broadband Communities conference. I hope that people will feel that you're a more seasoned, more a big get for us now.

David Young: I think you're being overly kind. How much can you talk about broadband in front of a group of people who know a lot about broadband?

Chris Mitchell: I just wanted to see if I could start off by making you blush and be modest. We're going to talk about some more details that I've learned about the franchise you have with a Fiber-to-the-Home provider in your community that results from your system of conduit. I think people should start by listening to that podcast that we had done previously, it was in December of 2015. For a quick refresher, for people who aren't familiar with Lincoln, what have you all done to supercharge Internet access in the community?

David Young: Starting in 2012 the mayor and Public Works Department came up with a broadband technology plan. Basically the goal was to attract new carriers to the market and have those be very specific carriers. We wanted Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 carriers to provide competitive access to broadband for businesses. Under state law, Lincoln, or any city in Nebraska, is not allowed to provide municipal broadband. Lincoln took stock and figured out that what we could do is put in conduit system and lease out those conduit to other providers. We initially put in five miles of conduit in our downtown area as part of a revitalization project and started looking around and found 80 miles of abandoned waterline, probably 40 miles of abandoned waste water lines. We repurposed those lines into conduit systems and traffic conduit, old electric conduit, old natural gas lines, basically any pipe we could get our hands on and turned it into a conduit system that now is over 350 miles. We've leased that out to seven carriers total. When we got down to the last space we started talking about, "Gee, this is pretty successful, maybe we ought to look at Fiber-to-the-Home." We started working with different carriers and financing professionals to build a Fiber-to-the-Home with that last space in the conduit system. In December of last year we signed that agreement. Can you believe it's already been a year? It's been very exciting on our side, very busy.

Chris Mitchell: Yes, I can imagine. How much did the city spend in creating this asset?

David Young: In total about $1.2 million over four years. There was about 600,000 upfront in conduit expense and then staff time and maintenance and a $600,000 CIP, so a little bit more than about 1.2 million.

Chris Mitchell: CIP, that's Capital Improvement Program?

David Young: Yes, I'm sorry. Yes. For all those in the government, CIP is the Capital Improvement Plan, which is a six year plan that is how you allocate your capital dollars across programs like streets, water, sewer, those kind of things.

Chris Mitchell: If we ignore the new businesses that have come to town using some of this fiber that these carriers are leasing from you and if we ignore the better competitiveness of some of the businesses that were already in town, what are some of the direct benefits the city has had in terms of raising revenue from that 1.2 million that they spent?

David Young: If you're only talk pure money from the system we make $475,000 a year in lease revenue.

Chris Mitchell: That's like a three year payback then, just from that alone from today.

David Young: Right, and we've been making money since 2013. 2013 is 55,000 and then we had two more leases in 2014 and really 2015 was our banner year. Right now we're at 475, with the Allo project we're expected to be in the neighborhood of two to two point seven million a year by 2018.

Chris Mitchell: Allo is a local company, it's in Nebraska. I know in people in Colorado are familiar with it. It's incredibly well regarded by its customers from what I can tell. Tell us a little bit more about Allo, I think it's in a unique position there in Lincoln.

David Young: Allo is a Western Nebraska company. It was started by, they like to say, Nebraskans for Nebraskans. The city was meeting and doing presentations on Fiber-to-the-Home and the value of the community to various local organizations, building that community support for the program. We were meeting with financiers and talking to them and Allo was brought in and offered to competitively bid on the Fiber-to-the-Home project in Lincoln. We had another company, Bluestem, also bidding on the franchise. Bluestem is still in operation, they are building one portion of the city. We actually have three Fiber-to-the-Home projects going right now. Allo won the citywide franchise, Bluestem is doing a small neighborhood in Northeast Lincoln and then our incumbent provider, Windstream, has announced that they will upgrade 5,000 homes over the next two years in Southeast Lincoln to Fiber-to-the-Home. It's been very successful from a community planning aspect of partnering with the private sector to build this infrastructure, but it is a lot of work. It's hard to believe that we're going on our fifth year of operation.

Chris Mitchell: I want to clarify something with the franchise, which is I think sometimes people think of franchises as being exclusive. Now you talk about offering a franchise because of the limited conduit space, that's the franchise to use that conduit. A company like Bluestem, there's nothing stopping them from building to the rest of the city, they just wouldn't be able to use the same asset that Allo is using. Am I getting that correct?

David Young: You are. We had one space left in the conduit system and I will tell you, sometimes that space isn't even there. The conduit system is getting very full. It's been very successful. The last guaranteed spot in the conduit system, what we said was we wanted somebody to provide Fiber-to-the-Home services and in order to do that we wanted to franchise for that last position. Allo and Bluestem both worked with the city very closely. It took us about 90 days to come to an agreement and Allo was ultimately chosen to do the project.

Chris Mitchell: Now when you say there's no more room in the conduit, I'm assuming that over time you'll fix that, you'll be putting in extra conduit or you might be doing something differently now because it's not like this is the end of the conduit forever.

David Young: Correct. No, no, no, there's nothing to prohibit the city from putting in additional conduit, and we are. The new conduit system as we're building it out is designed for six carriers occupancy. All extensions of the conduit system that are performed by private providers are deeded over to the city and owned by the city. All the additional expansion, all expansion construction is now under the new standard of six pack of conduit system.

Chris Mitchell: We did talk about that in the previous show so if people want more detail I invite them to go review that. The transcript's on our website at muninetworks.org. Before we get into the franchise, which is where I'm really excited about some of the things that you guys are doing with that, I wanted to make sure people understand, Allo is a little bit of a unique company that has I think more of a local focus than other companies. The reason that I think it's important is because other cities that might think, "We'll build our own conduit system," you may not get the same results. I hope that they would. I hope that they'll find firms that are interested but Allo has a direct relationship to another Lincoln company, Nelnet, which I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit more about in terms of how Allo's capitalized.

David Young: Nelnet is a Nebraska based student loan provider I believe, and a bank. They have been very successful, very community focused. They were one of the entities we were working with to build community support for the Fiber-to-the-Home program. Nelnet decided they would capitalize the entire project for Allo. They really believe in the community in Lincoln, Nebraska, and broadband as an infrastructure that is designed for 21st century cities. They wanted, Nelnet, their home town to have that infrastructure. It's my understanding they have given Allo $100 million loan to build the entire city.

Chris Mitchell: Right, I think from my perspective as someone who works at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we love seeing that kind of local focus, local businesses investing in the community. I think the city of Lincoln has really done a great job in terms of making it easier for that to happen and really facilitating that. In particular because you have this conduit system you have a little bit more leverage in negotiating with Allo for this franchise. If you didn't have the conduit system, do you think you would have had a different discussion with Allo?

David Young: Yes. I have talked to several communities in Nebraska and a few surrounding states about this project and I think your cautionary statement is very correct. Sometimes building a conduit system isn't the right model but I do think that engaging your provider, engaging your community upfront, and deciding what your model should be and then creating a plan and executing that plan is very important. We had the last space in the conduit system, we had a very successful model and we had a ton of community support for our program. When you put those three things together, yes we had a significant asset walking into the negotiations for the Allo project. I think that was born out in the agreement. I wouldn't describe it as leverage. Any partnership, what you bring to the partnership creates value for you and what the other party brings creates their value. We were just trying to maximize value for both parties. With a very successful system already in place we had a lot of value on our side of the table.

Chris Mitchell: Because you brought that value you could then make asks of Allo. One of the things I would start with is this idea of the SSIDs, which is I think we're using that as shorthand for virtual networks and SSID is the name of a wireless network that you see when your device is trying to connect to a WiFi network. Now tell us in terms of Allo's network how these virtual networks are involved.

David Young: Of course you're going to cause me to geek out and your listeners may want to fast forward to this next section.

Chris Mitchell: I think there's other people who might be fast forwarding to this section because we don't geek out enough.

David Young: Really?

Chris Mitchell: You never know.

David Young: One of the sections of the franchise, and this is a public document, anybody can have access to it, is called service to government buildings and facilities. A standard clause in many franchises but there's one section I'd like to read it to you. "The franchisee shall provide 15 Virtual Local Area Networks, VLANs, across the entire system. The public VLAN shall be provided free of charge to the city for non-competitive use. These VLANs shall be available at every connection and termination point on the franchisee's network." To those network engineers out there listening, they will have a big smile on their face because that means I have 15 virtual networks across the entire system that Allo deploys and at every termination and connection point, meaning wireless access points, I can have access to those VLANs. I can turn up my own SSID, Lincoln public school's access, health department access, those are a few of the ones that we're working on right now. A public VLAN access for education is in our library system, combining those two together so they're available on the entire system. It is very exciting. VLANs, if you really want to go to sleep late at night look up and read about VLANs. Basically it's an addressing system for the network and we have 15 of them.

Chris Mitchell: Let's talk about one use case that I'm very excited about. I've been in some ways evangelizing for this type of approach. The intricate technology is not as important to me as the sense of what you can do with it. I like to imagine, I have a child in the public school system, they have a device likely from the public school system. This is hypothetical of course, Jackson is almost one year old. What happens is wherever he goes with that device as long as those VLANs are there, that device could just log in. If he's at a friend's house or even if maybe I'm a low income family, if then he goes out to a public access point or perhaps the neighbor's signal is there and if the neighbor has consented to this, then his device will just connect. Effectively he will be at school on his device.

David Young: With all of the school's network security policies and access to all of the public school's resources, the public library resources. It would be as if seamlessly he was inside school on the same network. Yes, that is one of the most exciting use cases for us as well.

Chris Mitchell: The nice thing is, is that if you're a parent who's really worried about your child being on the open Internet, where they might find material that they're not even seeking and would be inappropriate, the fact that even in your home you wouldn't even have to worry about managing that connection -- Because I think a lot of parents are worried that their kids are going to be more tech savvy than they are, or they're worried that they won't have it set correctly, but now even in your home own your kids is using that device behind the filters and using all those resources. To me that seems like it's a very good solution.

David Young: We were very excited about it. It was one of those conversations, it's like, "What could we do with this? What would be the actual cost of providing this?" It's not a lot because there's some version of over 9,000 VLANs on a particular network so what does providing 15 cost? Not a lot from the provider, other than willingness and creativity of thought. By building this network as a public/private partnership there was a higher level discussion than just a dollar here or a dollar there, it's what could we do together. The Virtual Network, Virtual Local Area Network, VLAN project is actually my personal favorite part of the agreement. As we go forward we're connecting all the traffic signals in the city as they're building it out. We have a new program called Green Light Lincoln, which is upgrading out entire traffic system to the 21st century. We'll be putting in a new ATMS, Advanced Traffic Management System, next year to leverage all these new connections. Over the next three years every street light in the city will be connected to this new ATMS system.

Chris Mitchell: Let me suggest that perhaps your traffic engineers haven't seen Die Hard Four. It's a little bit concerning.

David Young: Technology should be treated cautiously I agree. Die Hard Four was a wonderful movie.

Chris Mitchell: Yeah, especially the part where the car flies up to take the helicopter out, but it's not something I've seen more than ten times, I assure you.

David Young: If you think about commute times and public dollars and impacting people's daily life, if we can make the system more efficient, that impacts everybody's life every day, whether you're riding the bus or whether you're driving your own car.

Chris Mitchell: Right, you can do a prioritization for public transit. As you said if everyone spends less time in congestion you're not only saving them time, you have less pollution. There's tremendous benefits to this.

David Young: On that, and then the other piece what if we don't have to widen the road? To widen the road costs us -- A road widening project for one mile is $10 million. What if we can just upgrade the infrastructure and allow more cars to travel through faster? We don't have to spend that public dollar there, we can spend it on maintaining that road instead of widening it and impacting those properties that are adjacent to it. It is really exciting for us. It's an exciting time to be in Lincoln working with the Public Works Department. Fiber-to-the-Home, the Fiber-to-the-Business project, the Green Light Lincoln project, there's a lot of technology projects going on right now in Lincoln.

Chris Mitchell: We talked about a couple of different aspects with the franchise. Is there anything else that you see that you are doing in Lincoln working with Allo that others aren't doing where you're getting ahead of the curve?

David Young: Defining the characteristics of service is something we do in our franchise. Basically, in most franchise you provide service to the city, great but we go a little further and we say that all residents and subscribers shall be provided service under non-discriminatory rates, terms and conditions. Meaning everybody gets the same price, no more negotiating for price. We also say that there are no residential contracts for service allowed, so if you don't like the price you're receiving you're not locked into a contract. We also do not allow installation fees, except for in very unusual circumstances. You can't get charged to have it installed, there is no contract and you're paying the same rate as your neighbor. We think these are actually very good things to put in a franchise because it creates a very competitive marketplace for the carrier, they have to compete on customer service and quality of service, not on contracts and the fact that you negotiate better than your neighbor about price. I think that's important. I think that other communities should consider doing that. I'm staff for the telecom advisory board for the city and a lot of the complaints we get are, "My service isn't great from X carrier," and, "I pay too much," but there is no competition. That was the single most, the highest complaint that we received. The highest number of complaints that we received was “there's no competition.” When you're building out a new infrastructure you're going built to every home ensuring that those competitive roadblocks are not institutionalized in your franchise agreement. It was very important to us, and I think other cities could look at that.

Chris Mitchell: I want to talk briefly about Rights of Way management, which is a part of your title. I'll telegraph that you're going to be back for a show later this year, in I don't know maybe another 10 episodes, in which we are going to be talking about some small cell deployment type stuff that your approach is enabling you to do. One of the things I feel like you've done in Lincoln is that you have simplified permitting in ways that both Allo and Bluestem may find it easier to pull permits and to build than they would in my city, in St. Paul, Minnesota perhaps. Do you have any advice for communities in terms of dealing with Rights of Way?

David Young: One of the major initiatives we had in 2013 was how to make our system more business friendly. Permitting was the number one area of conversation with every carrier we talked to. We did a little reorganization project and a study inside of public works and identified every staff position that was associated with managing the Right of Way, inspections, plan review, private development, public development, and we put them into one team called the Right of Way Construction team. That team is responsible for all public facing Right of Way construction projects, meaning if it's a natural gas project, if it's the waterline project, if it's a sewer line project, if it is not a CIP project, so not a capital project, then this group manages that and works with the public to ensure a fast, safe, and affordable project. As part of that program, as part of that program, we created an electronic permit system where carriers or franchisees can upload their plan set in a very simple permit. Our goal is to have that approved in two business days or less. Sometimes we get a little bit longer than that but most of the time we get it approved in about two business days.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things you had told me before was that when it comes to dealing with these companies, many of which I think local governments are frustrated with because they don't feel like they can get enough out of those companies in return for use of the Right of Way, I think you've said those companies are much more willing to negotiate on terms that would be viewed as favorable to the community if the community can turn permits around quickly. That's the thing they really care about.

David Young: The old adage, time is money, is very important. From the time a sales person goes into a business and says, "I would like to provide you with next generation broadband," to the time the company can actually deliver that broadband, is a very sensitive topic. The faster they can do it, the better they look to their customers, and, when they go slow, they point the finger at the city and say, "We can't get through permits, blah blah blah." If you can align your interest with the company, which is the city wants that customer turn up on broadband, we want them to be a happy customer, they're our customer too. Streamlining the permit process, it takes a little insight into why you're a community, why you're a service provider in the community and what your values are as an organization. For Public Works, it was providing good customer service that means providing good customer service to our corporate clients as well, and permits is how we do that. Establishing a goal, making that goal known, putting a goal in the contract, that gives the carrier comfort, allows them to forecast a little bit better. It gives them a better level of customer service, a better sense of partnership in the agreement instead of a one-sided agreement. It has paid off with us, all of our contracts have 15 minimum day turn times permits and we try to do it in two.

Chris Mitchell: Great. I want to ask if there's any last words of wisdom you might have from your entire lifetime working on this conduit project?

David Young: You know this is the second conduit project I've worked on, getting out there and talking to the community is critical.

Chris Mitchell: Let me ask you about that for a second, because I just imagine me going out and trying to talk to people in the community about conduit. I imagine people rolling their eyes and being like, "I'm bored," or, "I'm not interested." What does that mean?

David Young: I don't talk about conduit.

Chris Mitchell: Okay.

David Young: I talk about the Internet. We open with a couple of jokes and everybody laughs and we have a good time. Then we talk about the Internet and why it's important in their lives. The access to a trillion dollar marketplace, the competitiveness with other cities to attract and retain young people, young workers. We talk about the highest paid IT jobs, network engineers, database administrators, and architects, server engineers. You don't get those jobs unless you have a good robust broadband infrastructure. People get excited about that. A lot of people still don't understand truly what the Internet is, there's a feeling in some circles that it's a nebulous thing. Why is it important to me? My presentations generally are 10 slides and 15 jokes, and then we talk about what's really important to them, how their business can leverage the Internet to make more money, be more customer-focused. I'm done in about 30 minutes and then we talk, answer questions for 30 minutes. It's a great time, people feel like you're actually talking to them about what's important to them. We don't really talk about conduit. Usually I bring a piece of conduit, a piece of fiber and pass it around the room and let everybody touch it and feel it so they get an idea. When I first started here in 2012 almost every group that I went to that I took this piece of conduit and fiber to loved it. People wanted to see it, they had never seen and heard about fiber their whole life. They'd never seen it, they'd never touched it. Giving them that tactile sensation of handing around a piece of hard conduit in your hand and somebody says, "What happens if somebody digs into it?" You bang the conduit on the table, "It's pretty tough stuff." They laugh, and it's a good time. You have these visions, and I've been to these meetings where it's long and painful and slow. It doesn't have to be that way, but it takes a lot of work building a presentation that's fun and exciting and really talks to what people care about, not what you care about. I care about conduit but most people really don't care about that, they just care about the Internet, how it impacts their life. Talking about that is the best advice I can give people because people get excited about that and then you get to ask for support, asking for help in the community to prioritize budget money for that project. It's a finite pool. People want to support projects that they like so you have to get out there and market your project to the community so that the mayor and city councilors hear from those groups, to say, "Yes, we want this. Yes, we want to support this. This is a good thing."

Chris Mitchell: I think that's a great note to end the show on. Thank you so much for coming on.

David Young: Chris thank you very much.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with David Young, Lincoln, Nebraska's fiber infrastructure and Right of Way manager. As the network unfolds we will bring you more news. Remember we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcast 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 where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher or however else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank the group mojo monkeys for their song, Bodacious, licensed through creative commons and we want to thank you for listening to episode 228 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

NC Rural Electric Cooperatives Teach Model Collaboration

Throughout the October Broadband Communities Magazine conference, folks kept repeating this sentiment: some partnerships are smooth and others have rough patches. At the conference, we heard from several electric cooperatives who had partnered with other cooperatives to provide next-generation connectivity to their communities.

We specifically want to highlight the work of two North Carolina electric cooperatives: Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC. They were both included in our report North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Each co-op took the bold step of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout sparsely populated regions. At the conference, we were able to learn first-hand about their experiences.

Despite the Distance: Lumbee River EMC & HTC

HTC Chief Executive of Marketing Brent Groome described how the two cooperatives collaborated despite being nearly an hour away from each other. Their work together has involved a commitment to similar values and dedication to improving rural communities. (Lumbee River EMC’s representative was unable to attend the conference as much of the service territory had suffered flooding from the recent hurricane.)

Lumbee River EMC’s entry into Internet service brought fiber connectivity to southeastern North Carolina. The co-op provides electricity to more than 50,000 members. In 2010, the USDA provided Lumbee River EMC with nearly $20 million in funding to install fiber. A state law, however, imposes certain restrictions on electric co-ops and USDA funding. The electric co-op had to find another company with the drive and expertise to provide Internet service.

HTC, also known as Horry Telephone Cooperative, may be far from Lumbee River EMC’s boundaries, but shares the same commitment to community. The electric co-op reached out to HTC in 2013 while completing construction of the FTTH network. Lumbee River EMC had reached out to three other telephone companies, but eventually landed on HTC. After working out an Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU), HTC set to work and signed up the first customer in 2014. Although at times the co-ops had tension, they are both now focused on providing service to rural communities.

Borders And Blue Ridge Mountain EMC 

While HTC and Lumbee River EMC were learning to collaborate, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already built its own network and been involved in multiple partnerships. The co-op's Director for Economic Development Erik Brinke described how the service territory’s many challenges required the electric co-op to team up with other organizations.

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC's service territory runs along the border between Georgia and North Carolina. The cooperative’s 40,000 members are widely dispersed throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains. The terrain also made fiber deployment difficult, but it did not dissuade the electric co-op.

In 2002, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC brought fiber connectivity to the schools. Then in 2006, the co-op started the process of building their own FTTH network. Recently, the electric cooperative decided to partner with the Ellijay Telephone Company (ETC) to also provide voice and video services over the FTTH network. This was not an entirely new partnership. 

logo-north-georgia-network.PNG

Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had already collaborated with ETC, and several other neighboring organizations, to create the North Georgia Network. The group featured county governments and other electric cooperatives. With funding from several federal programs, they built a middle mile fiber network, connecting many rural schools and libraries that previously had shoddy service. The middle mile network improved connectivity for the whole region.

Cooperatives Overcome State Challenges

Several states, however, have legislation that can create complications for electric cooperatives' FTTH projects. For instance, the 1999 North Carolina law requires that electric cooperatives form a separate subsidiary that cannot receive financing from the USDA or the RUS (two common sources of cooperative funding). To navigate such challenges, Lumbee River EMC and Blue Ridge Mountain EMC had to collaborate with others who shared their values. Now, the electric co-op members have access to affordable, high-speed Internet service.

Holland, Michigan, Releases RFI, Responses Due Dec. 20th

Holland, Michigan, continues to pursue better local connectivity and hopes to find a private sector partner interested in using publicly owned fiber.

Recently, the city released a Request for Information (RFI) to reach out to potential partners who might be interested in working with the city for a Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) project. Responses are due December 20, 2016.

Developing Over Time

The community of approximately 33,000 people deployed fiber-optic infrastructure in the early 1990s for power smart grid capability for their municipal electric utility. Since then, Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW) has expanded the network to provide connectivity for local school facilities and wholesale Internet services to a few local businesses that require high capacity data services. Over the years, Holland has increased the network to about 76 miles of backbone fiber and more than 150 total miles, which includes laterals.

After engaging in a pilot project, HBPW released a study that analyzed possible business models and routes for a FTTP network designed to provide Gigabit per second (1,000 Megabits per second) capacity. Cost estimates for two separate options - one to provide service to all of HPBW’s service area and one only to premises within the city - came in at $63.2 million and $29.8 million respectively. The study assumed a “hybrid open access” model in which Holland would offer retail services but also lease excess capacity to private providers who also want to offer services to residents or businesses.

Looking At All The Options

Now that Holland has completed a study that provides one option, the community is interested in hearing what potential partners have to offer. The city seeks a partnership that:

  • Balances financial risk
  • Adopts an open access approach
  • Embraces a community wide FTTP deployment

They stipulate that there is to be no “cherry picking” because community leaders see high-quality Internet access on level footing with water and electricity - a utility that should be robust and affordable. From the RFI:

Citizens in low-income areas are particularly vulnerable, and broadband is important to help level the playing field. As the world becomes increasingly connected, broadband access is key to education, job training, and even access to one’s own medical records. We expect respondents to this RFI to be sensitive to this reality, and to be willing to work with the HBPW to develop creative solutions for supporting all members of the community. For the network to have the intended economic and quality-of-life impacts, we consider both cost and availability of service to be important. We encourage responses that address both to maximize service adoption. 

Unemployment is below the national average in Holland, where there is a healthy manufacturing sector. The city is trying to stay ahead of the curve, however, by taking steps now to ensure they retain the employers they have and establish and environment to attract new ones.

The HBPW has a long history of more than 130 years. The municipal utilities board provides electricity, water, and wastewater services. According to the RFI, they serve approximately 28,000 electric meters and 13,000 water meters.

Important Dates

  • November 1, 2016 – RFI issued
  • November 15, 2016 – Deadline for submitting letter of intent to respond to RFI
  • November 22, 2016 – Deadline for submitting questions 
  • December 6, 2016 – Responses to questions due (from the HBPW) 
  • December 20, 2016 – RFI responses due

Read the entire RFI online at the city website.

Madison Starts Muni Fiber Effort, Considers Citywide Effort - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 227

The second-largest city in Wisconsin and the home of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is pursuing a path-breaking municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) strategy. They have already started by deploying fiber to several low-income neighborhoods and working with local ISP ResTech to offer services.

Madison CIO Paul Kronberger joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 227 to discuss their plan. We start by discussing how they decided to deploy FTTH as a digital divide strategy. Like more and more of the communities considering this approach, Madison does not have a municipal electric utility.

We also discuss how Madison plans to deal with the state law that limits municipal fiber network investments and why Madison has decided to work with a private provider even though the city will retain ownership of the network. Read more of Madison coverage here.

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 18 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."

Rural Electric Co-ops Power Up a Gig in Pacific Northwest

Rural electric cooperatives are providing next-generation connectivity. In Oregon a consortium of electric cooperatives called LS Networks built a middle mile network a few years ago and now are taking the next step with last mile connectivity.

LS Networks’ Connected Communities program hopes to bring last mile fiber connectivity to 25 communities in rural Oregon and Washington. Internet access will officially be available in early 2017 in some communities. Depending on the needs of each community, the solution could be Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), or fixed wireless using the fiber-optic network for backhaul.

Connected Communities

The project started in July, but LS Networks only now made the official announcement. The Connected Communities program asks folks to nominate their community to be connected by filling out a short form. LS Networks will offer two types of monthly plans [pdf]: 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $40 and a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) for $70. Customers will also be able to purchase voice service for an additional $15 per line and 50 cents per phone number.

Currently, the small, northern Oregon town of Maupin is the only official Connected Community. LS Networks is already at work building out a fiber connection to nearly all of the 400+ homes and businesses in the community. On November 9th, Maupin residents can take part in a town hall meeting at the South Wasco County High School to learn more about LS Networks’ plans and the Connected Communities program.

Consortium of Cooperatives

LS Networks should be well prepared to handle such a large-scale fiber network project. The consortium of electric cooperatives and the Coquille Tribe came together around 2005 to provide middle mile connectivity. At first, the consortium focused on their region of northern Oregon, but LS Networks’ footprint quickly grew to 7,500 route miles of fiber. The network spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, covering rural regions of Washington, some areas of northern California, and even parts of Idaho. 

If all goes as planned, rural homes and businesses in Oregon and Washington will soon have access to affordable next-generation technology. In the press release, Director of Sales and Marketing Bryan Adams highlighted how LS Networks continued to stay true to its cooperative roots

“Our priority has always been to provide service before profit and to use telecommunications as a tool to bridge the communities that make the Pacific Northwest great — on both sides of the Cascades.”

To learn more about the Connected Communities program, check out the LS Networks Connected Communites information website.

Fresno Looking For Partners: RFQ Responses Due Nov. 30th

Fresno, California, is looking for one or more partners to bring Gigabit connectivity to the entire community. City leaders recently released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to send out the call for interested entities. Letters of interest are due on November 14th and statements of qualifications are due by November 30th.

Leaving No One Behind

According to the RFQ, the community is experiencing growth in the tech sector and want to support the tide by improving Internet infrastructure throughout the community. In addition to serving new businesses for economic development, the network will connect community anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries. 

As part of their goals, Fresno states explicitly that they want to ensure low-income families and individuals will be able to afford high-quality Internet access. In an article in the Fresno Bee, city leaders sate that they envision rates for some residents at around $10 per month for either a wired or fixed wireless connection.

Using Existing Assets

Chief Information Officer Bryon Horn says that the city has approximately 90 miles of fiber in place in the northeast, northwest, and southeast regions of town for traffic control. The southwest area of town, however, is plagued by gaps in service. In the RFQ, the city suggests that any solution could use and expand on the existing publicly owned fiber. An increasing number of communities are taking advantage of the extra capacity available in fiber installed for traffic light synchronization. Aurora, Illinois, used its traffic fiber as a starting point to build out OnLight Aurora. More recently, Centennial, Colorado, is encompassing its traffic-related fiber-optic network into a project that will allow the city to partner with Ting for Gigabit connectivity to the community.

Fresno also has dig once policies in place and 104 miles of telecommunications conduit that can be used for the project, which will facilitate any project.

Fresno

Approximately 520,000 people live in Fresno, and city leaders estimate the population will grow by about 7 percent within the next five years. It is more than 112 square miles in the San Joaquin Valley where there is a $26 billion agricultural industry. Even though much of our country's food grows there, it is also one of America’s fastest growing tech job centers. Both sectors of the economy are increasingly dependent on high-speed connectivity.

Along with large employers, the school district serves 73,000 students, more than 11,000 employees, in 97 schools. They recently launched a technology initiative. Higher education in Fresno supports more than 80,000 students at California State University and four other community college and universities.

One Of Several Investments

According to the RFQ, the proposed investment in better connectivity it one of several community improvements. They are also developing several public transportation projects and a water infrastructure project to make the city “drought-proof.”

Read the RFQ at the city website.

Lakeland, Florida, Takes Small Steps

This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.

Too Much For Lakeland?

Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.

In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:

“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.

Pilot Won't Fly

One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:

“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.

He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”

While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:

“For most of us there is not a philosophical problem with expanding utilities. This is a utility; we can pretty well justify it ... (and) when you look at the revenue possibility down the road to replace the hospital it makes good governmental sense,” [Mayor Howard] Wiggs said.

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But incumbent providers are not obligated to play nice with new competition, Wiggs said, and he worried an operation like Charter Communications could severely drop prices and erode the city’s market edge.

Not A Total Loss

While Commissioners chose not to pursue the municipal network plan, they did support a number of items intended to encourage better connectivity in Lakeland:

  • It will submit a bid for supplying internet access to Polk County schools when its current contract expires with the goal of making money from existing assets while reducing the cost of the School District’s services.
  • To address the “digital divide” between rich and poor, Lakeland will consider expanding its free wireless service, SurfLakeland, into neighborhoods. The service is currently available in municipal buildings and in Munn Park.
  • Wiggs recently made a pitch to other municipal leaders in Polk County to join forces in encouraging broadband expansion throughout the county.
  • The city will continue its “dig once” policy for all infrastructure work — that when roads are closed and crews dispatched for underground utility work, conduit that could be used for fiber optics is put in place.
  • The city’s “dark fiber” network, which provides intra-city connections for companies and organizations with multiple facilities, will be more actively marketed. Currently the program generates about $4 million each year.
  • The city will also look at fees and licensing costs to determine if they are discouraging private investment.

The Lakeland Regional Airport will deploy its own fiber infrastructure and will offer Internet access to tenants. The project had been considered as a business pilot and, according to the article, costs are now going to be covered in part with federal and state grants specifically earmarked for airports.

Citizens Want Action

Gigabit Lakeland, the grassroots organization advocating for a municipal network, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Shane Mahoney, one of the group’s leaders, talked to the Ledger:

A partnership with a private provider has not been his favored outcome, Mahoney said, but his group intends to continue pressuring the city toward better internet infrastructure in the city, particularly for residents who do not have quality access because of price or location.

Santa Cruz And Cruzio Call It Quits

The city of Santa Cruz seemed well on their way to a productive partnership with Cruzio as the two entities hammered out an agreement for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) citywide open access network. We recently learned that both parties have stepped back from the partnership, leaving the multimillion-dollar vision in a dark limbo.

The Plan

The $45 million infrastructure was to be owned by the city of Santa Cruz and Cruzio would operate it while also offering high-quality Internet access to the community. For the first ten years, Cruzio was to have an exclusive contract after which the network would become open access. There are approximately 62,000 people living in the community situated near Silicon Valley and this project was one of the larger public-private partnerships (P3).

In July, Cruzio announced that it would begin deploying fiber in one of the city’s downtown neighborhoods by Thanksgiving, ahead of any agreement to use city-owned fiber. The deployment will bring FTTH to approximately 1,000 homes; Cruzio’s plan is self-funded.

Now What?

There is nothing that prevents the two parties from picking up where they left off and reaching an agreement some time in the future, but they would need to rebuild trust. Sadly, they lost over a year as the two parties negotiated while residents and businesses across the city happily anticipated better Internet access.

These events remind us that P3s are fragile unions that are the apex of many interlocking pieces. Like a house of cards, when one segment falls, the entire structure can come tumbling down. As more local communities consider P3s to bring high-quality Internet access to residents, businesses, and local government, they need to stay realistic, consider the long term, and keep risk in their sights.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 222

This is episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Centennial, Colorado's Fiber Director Tim Scott joins the show to discuss conduit policy, dark fiber strategy, and Ting. Listen to this episode here.

Tim Scott: How do we create a more competitive environment and enable new entrants to look at the market and put together products and services, leveraging the city’s backbone that can create this new, competitive, compelling environment in Centennial?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In 2013, Centennial, Colorado voters chose overwhelmingly to opt out of the state's law that restricts local telecommunications authority. Since then, they've steadily advanced toward a plan to use their publicly owned fiber to bring better connectivity to the community. Last month, Internet service provider, Ting, announced that it would be partnering with Centennial to bring gigabit Internet service access via the city's publicly owned fiber-optic network. Tim Scott, the city's director of fiber infrastructure, joins Chris today to talk about Centennial's voyage from a new Denver suburb to a city that has the fiber to draw in a growing provider like Ting. He explains what the city has created and how, what providers are looking for, and offers more information about the new partnership. Now here are Chris and Tim Scott, director of fiber infrastructure from the city of Centennial, Colorado.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Tim Scott, the director of fiber infrastructure for the city of Centennial, Colorado. Welcome to the show.

Tim Scott: Morning, Chris. Thanks for inviting me.

Christopher Mitchell: I got it right, Tim Scott?

Tim Scott: Yeah, you did. You got it right. Good job.

Christopher Mitchell: The community of Centennial, I've actually been down in that area, in the Denver metro area. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Tim Scott: As you say, it's really considered a suburb nearly of Denver. We're right down on the southeast corner of the Denver metro area. What's kind of interesting about the city of Centennial, a lot of people don't know this, it's a very new city. We're only 15 years old. We were incorporated in February 7th, I believe, 2001. It's a very new city that was pieced together in a lot of what was unincorporated Arapahoe County land. We're 14 miles wide across. We often refer to the city as shaped a bit like a dumbbell. We've got this larger eastern residential area, which would be one of the dumbbells, and then it sort of narrows along the middle where we kind of have more of our central business district, or CBD area, and then it widens out again into more of a dumbbell shape on our western side of the city. 14 miles across and a population, I believe, of 107,000.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that shape actually plays into a lot of our discussion in terms of what Centennial's done with fiber-optics. We'll talk in a minute about the partnership that you're going to be engaging in where Ting is going to be leasing some lines from you. First let's talk about what Centennial has. What has Centennial built over the years?

Tim Scott: The city really has been on a path of really trying to figure out how fiber can continue to develop the city and keep it ahead, really, of a very competitive growing Denver metro area and sort of looking at ways to use fiber as a leading edge tool that continues to keep the city at the forefront, whether it's from an economic development perspective, for creativity, for our own city services. This has really been a path that the city's been on probably for, I would say, four years. It's probably a good indicator hopefully to some listeners of really how long it can take to figure all these pieces out. I know, Chris, that you've met many of their council members that attended some of the broadband shows over the years as they really tried to put these different pieces together. During those years, they took some really important steps, I think, to sort of get the city prepared ultimately for a broader fiber initiative with partnerships, potentially. Across those years, they continue to invest in some city owned fiber. We have about 50 miles today of fiber along most of the major roads through the city. They primarily are used— it’s city owned fiber, what we call ITS for intelligent traffic signaling. It really doesn't do anything more than that. That in itself has really served a purpose because the city through our Public Works Department built, deployed, managed contractors to deploy that fiber— some of that knowledge is internal within the city now, which is great. Probably most importantly really what it required was the building and the ownership of existing city conduit that that fiber would reside in. I think what we learned as a city is that ownership of that physical asset is so important and in this case ownership of as much as our own city conduit was really important because ultimately that's what's going to be leveraged in our next phase of our fiber build out.

Christopher Mitchell: I think the shape of the city actually really works to your advantage because if I understand it correctly, you were able with your intelligent traffic signaling to put in conduit and fiber along a few major corridors and yet be very close to the vast majority of the premises in the community.

Tim Scott: Yeah, that's correct. If we look at 2013, which is really our starting asset for our fiber master plan, which we'll talk about, which is really our 2016 initiative, if we look at our assets in 2013, where we had fiber in conduit, it really isn't that different from where we're going to invest and build new fiber in 2016 going forward, it's just that's called a different type of fiber with a different purpose, and that's going to be for serving our community anchor institutions and for serving ultimately businesses and residents. You're right, even in 2013, the city already had a strong footprint of existing city owned conduit and some existing fiber serving our traffic signaling, would run east to west across the city down those main roads, main lines, as you said really passes some significant residential populations and again with our coming down the core of that central business district in the middle of that dumbbell, passing a lot of business in our city as well that ultimately can be served with fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: Tim, I'm curious, I think a lot of people just sort of think, well if you had fiber to a lot of these places in 2013, why do you have to do something different now to achieve different ends, rather than the original ITS, intelligent traffic signaling ends?

Tim Scott: It's a great question, Chris. It's something I think that the city probably took a good 12, maybe even 24 months to really understand and get their head around completely that this strategy for fiber from a broader perspective needed to be a little different. Around 2013, the city had deployed fiber in typically a let's call it a point to point fashion, where the pure purpose of that fiber was to go from really one street crossing to another street crossing to serve traffic lights. That was a good purpose and why it was built at that time, but obviously when it was built at that time from a fiber density perspective, it was also low count fiber, like everything from 12 fibers up to 40 type fibers, but what we would call low density fiber. Also perhaps most importantly, I always feel a lot of communities tend to forget this, is it's really the accessibility to the fiber that becomes important. It's not just where the fiber goes, but it's where the handholds are and the future splice points are that ultimately that stretch fiber could be utilized to be used from an expansion perspective. Where do you break into that fiber to create a lateral that can connect to an anchor institution, a business, or a resident? It was a great starting point because it was, again, conduit that the city went through the process of either building and owning itself or getting it co-built with a carrier that may have been building some conduit in the city too, and then being able to use that existing conduit to serve a purpose in 2013, but again, revisit that conduit now in 2016 and say, "Okay, the best way for us would be to build a new, what we would call, carrier grade backbone infrastructure," but again using that existing conduit, a lot of it, that was built in 2013 and prior to 2013 to run this high count. In the case of the city of Centennial's backbone, you're going from low strand fiber to a 432 fiber backbone. That is a lot of fiber. A lot of people fall off their chairs when they say, "The city's building a 432 fiber backbone," so absolutely the city's backbone that will be deployed all around the city and in many of the same locations where we had ITS fiber and city owned conduit, except now it'll be probably 65 plus miles of new fiber backbone, 432 fiber count, the latest and greatest from a spec perspective in terms of fiber that's on the market today. Again, with all the records that we think are really important to accompany that. You've got to be able to prove conduit ownership. You've got to be able to create the right splice points and the right accessibility to the backbone fiber, and ultimately then back that up with the right level of documentation that shows the correct as-built exactly where it is, exactly how it's accessible. It's really building it with a purpose to serve as a facilitator for the private sector. I think that's very different than building fiber that has a single purpose, which in our case was ITS, and then building fiber as a backbone that really can be leveraged ultimately someday by the private sector who could come and use it, but has a higher level of expectation in terms of documentation, accessibility, support, how it was built, all that complex stuff that ultimately becomes important. We're going through all that complex stuff to build it exactly in the right way so it could be considered carrier grade.

Christopher Mitchell: There's a couple of questions that sort of spring to mind, and one is when you say you're reusing the conduit, did you have enough space to just put additional fiber in there or do you have to pull out those original 40-some strands?

Tim Scott: Yeah, good question. We have a lot of conduit conversations because actually what's quite interesting with this project is that we're 100% underground. It's all city owned conduit or ultimately what will be city owned conduit. In a lot of places, that's two inch conduit. Where we have two inch conduit and we have city fiber already there, we may build, as we go through this build process, another parallel conduit that will sit right beside it that will serve the 432. We're really going through that process right now with what we're calling our design engineering firm or our owner's project manager that really looks exactly what where do we have conduit, where do we have clean, clear two inch conduit that we can use for the new 432 backbone. Great. Where do we have existing conduit where it's clean and it's a quarter inch conduit, and where do we have existing city conduit where it's maybe two inch but there's going to be some fiber already in there? The plan right now, and of course this is all subjective to ultimately final budgets and stuff, but the plan right now is we really don't want to have to cut and pull out any fiber and then replace it with new backbone. Our preference would be to ensure that the city has lots of available city conduit, both for this project but even for the future too. I mean, if we can put in three two inch conduits in some locations, we'll look to do that because we believe that's still an asset and 10, 20 years down that could be very valuable.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, let's get onto what many people might consider the big news, which is that we've just learned that Ting, a company that's already working in Charlottesville, Virginia, Westminster, Maryland, we've talked about many times. They've also announced Holly Springs, North Carolina, and Sandpoint. And their fifth community they're going to be working with is Centennial, which I think is pretty tremendous, given that everyone seems to love their services. I've long been a wireless customer of theirs and I'm very happy. What's your relationship with Ting in terms of how they're interacting with you?

Tim Scott: Two weeks ago Ting broke the news that they were coming to Centennial, Colorado, which I think as you mentioned is their fifth planned community project. We're very excited about Ting. Ting is a company that certainly I've followed over the last couple of years as they've worked really diligently to get their first couple of projects on the eastern seaboard off the ground. I've had the pleasure of visiting those communities and really understanding both what Ting does locally, but also probably even more importantly is their engagement with the local community. Ting followed an RFI process that the city had, expressed their interest in leveraging this new, to be built, carrier grade 432 backbone, to really come and enter what I think is a wonderful market for them. It's an extremely fast growing area of the country. It's an extremely fast growing area of the Denver metro market. We have actually, in Centennial, we have the highest Internet adoption rate in the country of 96%. We believe we've got a very educated, very connected community. We think it's a great opportunity for a fiber player to come to town, leverage the city's backbone that gives that pervasive coverage across the city, and ultimately invest their dollars to bring the backbone to the premise, whether it's businesses, whether it's residential. One of the things you mentioned I think that's been a real standout has been what we've learned about their customer service. You've experienced that obviously on the wireless side, but it appears to be very similar on the wired side, the fiber side. We're excited about that. Obviously we're excited about their products and their future services, which hopefully they'll be bringing out as well to markets like Centennial. I look at it as a real game changer for the city. I really think that this presence of Ting will really transform the city of Centennial. I'm excited to see their white and blue trucks and vans drive around Centennial just like I saw them in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, are they actually going to be leasing your fiber then or your conduit or will it vary depending on location? Is that all worked out yet?

Tim Scott: No, it's not all worked out yet. Basically the announcement is I think confirmation that they're in the what I would call research stage. They've already done their preliminary research. They're very happy about the demographics and obviously what they consider is a great market opportunity in Centennial. Now they dropped down a layer and they start to figure out, okay, where exactly should we target first? Which residential areas of the city make sense? What about the businesses? How do we do that? Obviously they have a large step up to create in terms of creating a local team in the Colorado market, something they'll be starting very soon. There's a lot of actions that they have to take. Then really their relationship with the city at this point is ultimately they will execute some sort of agreement or lease of fiber on the city's backbone. I think that will obviously be dictated a little bit about some of the decisions they have to make about where they will go first, which areas of the city, which residential areas of the city. The business relationship, if you want to call it that, is basically they're taking an IRU for fiber lease from the city of Centennial, which would absolutely be obviously available to the next partner that might want to take an IRU on the city's backbone.

Christopher Mitchell: That's actually something I wanted to ask you about. With 432 fiber strands, it seems like you have plenty of capacity then for any other ISPs that might want to also invest in Centennial.

Tim Scott: Yeah, we do. I mean, we are building deliberately a backbone that has a lot of capacity, both for opportunities for private carriers to lease dark fiber capacity on the backbone, but also for our community anchor institution use, public safety use for many agencies across the city. The opportunity is there for other carriers to lease fiber on our backbone and make that bet of investing to create fiber to the premise opportunities. I think a lot of people think about it and I think a lot of people see those opportunities, but actually taking the steps that Ting have done to create the brand around it, create the local teams around it, have the product services and customer support to back it up, those are different. Those are different steps. We're very pleased with the partnership. We're very pleased with where we are with Ting and we look forward to the decisions that they make over the next few months, which will really set up what they do in 2017 and beyond.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, this is a key moment in the podcast that I usually come up against, and that is we could end it right now and have a nice short podcast, but there's another question that's burning in my head. You're a unique person that can help answer it, I think. You have a pretty long background in dealing with various open solutions, both dark and lit open access approaches. Your background, you've worked previously with Axia, which is an open access provider working in the state of Massachusetts. I'm really curious if you can just – Some of our other cities who aren't Centennial who are trying to figure out how to think about their different options in terms of a dark versus a lit strategy for encouraging open competition in the community. What thoughts can you give them?

Tim Scott: Yeah, and it's a great question and I think one, Chris, that we've seen tossed about for years at various broadband and community fiber forums. I think the way that I would answer this is, first of all, just talking about what the city of Centennial did. The city of Centennial really tried to figure this out for a number of years. Went through the process, you've got to sit in a room and have everybody say, "Okay, we can either, at one end of the scale, do nothing or, at the other end of the scale, we can do everything," meaning that we can build a network, fiber, electronics, offer services, move into the whole competitive environment. At one end of the scale it's obviously $0, do nothing, and the other end of the scale it could be $150 million plus and become this new entity. I really believe that in all situations, depending on the community, there's a model for each. In the case of Centennial, it was not really to pick a middle ground or anything, but the right answer because of our drivers which was we didn't have a significant fiber in our community from a city perspective that we could really leverage. We had a competitive environment in the sense that we have Comcast and CenturyLink, but no fiber products being developed or being brought into the community from a fiber to the premise perspective. We had small, small numbers of fiber where the largest enterprises could get served with basically expensive fiber. We really felt, from an economic development perspective, the focus was on how do we create a backbone that can create a more competitive environment and enable new entrants to look at the market and put together products and services, leveraging the city's backbone that can create this new competitive, compelling environment in Centennial? Again, that just takes a lot of time to go through the process as a team to figure that out, to get through the right political support behind it, to educate everybody that's on council, not just the wonderful three members that we had on our fiber subcommittee who are all three sitting council members as well. It just takes time to go through that. In our case, the answer to what Centennial should provide became very evident through a lot of different workshops. It became very evident of what we felt we needed to do to change those dynamics. I see other communities that maybe are more rural and they really, truly believe that they have to move into what I would call the business. Maybe they only have one carrier serving their community and maybe they're not very focused on doing a great job. Obviously they need to go further on that scale towards that number that I talked about, that $150 million number, where they need to not just build fiber, but they might need to light up the electronics and even provide— compelling at least Internet services.

Christopher Mitchell: What I'm curious in particular is for a community that is really set on providing services indirectly, really focusing on wholesale services or wanting to encourage that, I'm curious about the merits of a dark versus a lit strategy. The city's basically already saying, "We're not going to provide services ourselves."

Tim Scott: Yeah. I feel like in our case we chose that dark fiber strategy because we see a line in the sand between being a provider of dark fiber and the complexity that's associated with making that business work and making those prices and products compelling for the marketplace. Then on the other side of that line, the complexity of moving into wholesale lit services is just a different ballgame. You've got to have a different type of team and you've got to have different capital and you've got to have different levels of expertise and different levels of support, and that option which would be wholesale lit services. Again, for us, it just became apparent through our process that creating a dark fiber backbone that was citywide, that has been built to a carrier grid standard that you can prove to any private parties that you sit down, whether it's the biggest guy in the country or the smallest guy. You can say, "Here's how it was built. Here's the as-builts. Here's the quality. Here's the data centers and carrier hotels that the backbone connects to." That becomes a very compelling proposition. There's other things that are important too, Chris. To ensure that dark fiber proposition works, the city has got to be organized. The city's got to have this permanent fix. It's got to have the right of ways fixed. All that stuff, what Google looked towards cities to provide, a lot of that work has gone on in the background as well over the last couple of years as the city also got organized to ensure that we could really be very responsive as it related to our codes and permitting and all those other requirements.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. One last follow up question, which is you mentioned this a couple of times and I think you're probably someone who could define it well, when you talk about carrier grade, I assume that's in contrast to enterprise grade, which is not a Star Trek reference. Aside from all the paperwork, which I find very interesting to prove that it's not going to cause any headaches for someone who's using it in the future, what are some of the other things that a potential ISP would be looking for in terms of something that's carrier grade?

Tim Scott: Yeah. It seems to get thrown around, but I think you got to be able to demonstrate to a private carrier that this backbone fiber that ultimately they're going to use and really treat as their asset under an IRU, you have to be able to demonstrate that it's been built correctly, with the right as-builts, that it's been tested correctly with the right fiber test results, such as OTDR testing, which they would, I assume, expect to see and many of them will, and that it's ultimately the right type of fiber in terms of its specifications. Some of those ... Those three elements I would certainly say all factor into something being termed carrier grade. Then the other piece that we touched on earlier that I didn't want to forget about is accessibility. There's no point in having the latest and greatest fiber backbone from point A to point B if you can't get at it in between. It's the getting at it in between that creates the valuable laterals that connect to the residential communities or connects to the businesses or connects to anchor institutions. It's combining, I feel, all the factors, right, and into that definition of what's carrier grade. Unfortunately, I've sat down over the years with many communities that might have the fiber asset but really struggle to explain and demonstrate to a private party that it's carrier grade because they don't have the documentation or they don't have the test results or they can't prove that it connects to the right points, A and B or A and Z locations, or that it's accessible in between and they've got the documentation to demonstrate where it's accessible in between. All those factors I feel melt into that broad definition of carrier grade.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for coming on the show to tell us so much more about what's happening in Centennial. I think also almost uniquely in this history of this show at least to really give us the nuts and bolts between the differences between building a network out for intelligent traffic signaling and how to attract a brand new carrier. It's been great.

Tim Scott: Thanks, Chris. Thanks a lot for having me on the show. I look forward to seeing you in Colorado sometime soon.

Lisa Gonzalez: Thank you for listening to episode 222 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Again, that was Tim Scott, director of fiber infrastructure from Centennial, Colorado. Read more about Centennial at MuniNetworks.org. Remember we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcast 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's stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thanks to the group, mojo monkeys, for their song “Bodacious,” licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening.

Mediacom Lawyers Slow Competition With Court Time, Resources

 

When big corporate incumbent providers fear a hint of competition from a new entrant, they pull out all the stops to quash any potential threat. One of the first lines of offense involves the courts. Iowa City now leases its fiber to Cedar Rapids based ImOn and to stop it, Mediacom is reprocessing an old argument. It didn't work the first time, but they are going for it anyway; this is another example of how cable companies try to hobble competitors; just stalling can be a "win."

A Lawsuit In Search Of An Offense

Mediacom has a franchise agreement with Iowa City to offer cable television services and it also provides subscribers the option to purchase Internet access and telephone services. As most of our readers are attuned to these matters, you probably already understand that just any old cable TV provider can’t come into Iowa City and set up shop. State and local law require them to obtain a franchise agreement, which often includes additional obligations in exchange for access to a community’s potential customer base.

According to a 2015 Gazette article, Mediacom provides annual payments for use of the public right-of-way, operates a local office, and provides free basic cable services to local schools and government buildings. These types of commitments are commonplace as part of franchise agreements and are small sacrifices compared to the potential revenue available to Mediacom.

ImOn started offering Internet access and phone services to Iowa City downtown businesses in January but the company does not offer cable TV services like it does in other Iowa municipalities. ImOn doesn't have a franchise agreement with Iowa City but Mediacom says that it should. They argue that, because ImOn has built a system capable of offering video service, it should also have to obtain a franchise agreement.

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In August, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Wolle dismissed the case, stating in a nutshell:

"Although ImOn is constructing in Iowa City a system that may become capable of delivering cable programming, ImOn is not now delivering cable programming. Therefore, ImOn is not presently required to seek a cable franchise.” 

Blast From The Past

This isn’t the first time this argument has echoed off the walls of a courtroom. Back in 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit dismissed a similar case between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and the city of North Kansas City. The situation was similar, except the city had not yet decided whether to invest in the required head end to provide video over the fiber-optic network they wanted to deploy. At the time, a Missouri law required a vote if the community planned to build and own a system in order to offer cable TV services. TWC wanted the use the court for a pre-emptive strike: to bar the city from using the network for video services stating that they could not do so because they had never held a vote.

TWC's argument revolved around the question of whether or not the city owned or operated a cable television facility, which was in violation of state law. Since the network was not offering cable services and there was no head end yet - in fact they didn't even know if they wanted to invest in one - what really mattered was whether or not North Kansas City owned a "cable TV facility" without prior voter approval. In other words, were they building a network that was capable of offering cable TV services?

As in Iowa City, the court determined that the issue was not “ripe.” From the opinion:

It is factually undisputed that the City's fiber-optic network is not connected to the required head end facility to receive such signals nor is there any plan to acquire it. Thus, Time Warner's statutory claim rests on a contingent future event:  the ownership or operation of a cable-television facility by the City;  therefore, Time Warner's claim that a vote is required under Missouri law is not ripe in that the City does not currently own or operate a cable-television facility because the planned fiber-optic network will not be capable of transmitting cable-television signals and because the City recognizes that in order for it to provide cable-television services a public vote would be required.

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Let's not put the cart before the horse.

Jeff Janssen, vice president of sales and marketing for ImOn said in December that if the provider’s plans change, they will take the necessary steps:

“Franchise agreements are all around cable TV,” he said. “Once we decide, or if we decided to offer cable TV in Iowa City, we would get that franchise agreement, we are required to.”

Every Tool In The Anti-Competitive Toolbox

Mediacom has approximately 4,500 employees and, like the other large corporate providers, they have a highly qualified regiment of attorneys. Not likely they missed the similarities between the North Kansas City and Iowa City cases, but there’s more than one way to win.

Traditionally, winning means presenting the facts and proving to the judge that they fit into the law and that your interpretation of how they work with the law is more correct than your opponent's. For companies like Mediacom and TWC, however, winning can also mean delaying your opponents project to drive up their costs or cool subscriber interest. In other words, going after the fruit before it is "ripe."

Winning may also mean forcing the other side to give up and walk away by driving up their legal costs or making them lose progress when construction is delayed and subscribers lose confidence in the project.

Big incumbents have become masters at using the courts for sabotage schemes, no matter how frivolous the perceived infringement. They sue or threaten to sue over poles, attempts to streamline, and what services a city can and cannot offer. The state legislatures that have passed laws restricting local authority have only helped massive telecoms and cable companies abuse the courts by providing vehicles for their lawsuits. At the same time, they have forced local governments to waste citizen funds and stalled Internet access, typically to the communities most desperate for it.

You can read the Order for Summary Judgement, the Order Amending the Order (which appears to correct a typographical error), and the Notice of Appeal for more.