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Erwin FTTH Pilot Project Moving Forward

Erwin, Tennessee announced last summer that it was planning an FTTH pilot project to connect 1,200 customers. After receiving the necessary approval from the state comptroller this summer, Erwin Utilities began construction in October, reported the Erwin Record.

The pilot project focuses in and around downtown and leadership at Erwin Utilities plan to use the network for the town's electric system, water system, and wastewater system in addition to high-speed connectivity. Lee Brown, General Manager of the municipal utilities, reported that the network will provide services up to a gig.

From an August Johnson City Press article:

“This project will enable Erwin Utilities to provide improved electric, water and wastewater services while enhancing the quality of life and creating economic opportunities for citizens within Erwin Utilities’ service area,” he said. “I expect the benefits of this project to our customers and community to be substantial.”

...

“It’s our intent to be able to deploy this over our whole customer service area in the future, and of course, the success of the pilot project will somewhat dictate how quickly we’ll be able to do that,” Brown said. 

The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion in early January.

LightTUBe Lowers the Price of a Gig; Increases Speeds for Free AGAIN

The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) began offering gigabit service in 2013 through its municipal FTTH network, LightTUBe. In a recent press release the TUB announced it has lowered the price of residential gig service to $99.95 per month

In addition to slashing the price for the highest tier, TUB increased all other Internet speeds at no additional cost. This is the sixth time since its 2008 deployment that LightTUBe customers have enjoyed a free speed increase. From the LightTUBe website:

New LightTUBe Prices

Brian Skelton, TUB General Manager, said in the press release:

“We’ve grown our Internet business in such a way that we can offer Gigabit speeds at a more affordable price.” 

Skelton has said in the past that the decision to offer Gigabit Internet was an easy one. 

“We want to make Tullahoma a much more desirable location for technology companies to locate, due to our ultra-high speed Internet and our highly skilled workforce,” he explained in spring of 2013. “Tullahoma is light-years ahead of most cities in the United States with the ability to offer these incredibly fast Internet speeds.”

LightTUBe has brought jobs to the community, increased the efficiency of the electric utility through a smart metering program, and implemented a "TV Everywhere" option for customers. Even thought the network is restricted by state law, it has remained financially stable while keeping rates in check.

Chanute Receives State OK to Bond for FTTH Deployment

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) will allow the city of Chanute move forward with its plan to serve residents and local businesses with its municipal network reports the Wichita Eagle. KCC staff had recommended that the community, which has built out a network over the course of decades, receive KCC approval. 

In keeping with an antiquated 1947 state law, K.S.A. 10-123, the city needed KCC approval to issue the revenue bonds. In keeping with the statutory requirements, the KCC found that the expansion is necessary and appropriate for the city, its consumers and investors. The KCC also also determined that the expansion will not duplicate an existing utility service.

In its filing [PDF], Chanute indicated that its network is an essential part of the local economy and the community's future:

Chanute is a rural community, and like all rural communities, access to broadband is fundamental to the well-being of its citizens and even to the survival of the community itself. Chanute does not need to convince the Commission of the importance of having access to a high- speed broadband network. The Commission is well aware of that need. The investments contemplated for Chanute's broadband network are necessary and appropriate to allow Chanute to meet that need in its territory.

As the city points out, incumbents AT&T and Cable One, do not offer anything close to the level of service of the planned gigabit FTTH network. As we cover in our 2012 report on Chanute, AT&T and Cable One seem to have no interest in serving the community beyond minimum expectations. It was the need for better services that inspired the city to build out its infrastructure and offer services to local businesses.

Prior the the KCC ruling, the Wichita Eagle reported that AT&T requested and obtained permission to intervene in the proceeding. AT&T's subsidiary Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SWBT) petitioned to intervene in November [PDF], stating:

SWBT's interests and those of its customers may be affected by any order or determination of the Commission as may hereafter be adopted in the above- captioned proceeding.

AT&T told the Eagle:

“Any decision made by the KCC could impact AT&T’s business operations in the area, which is why we asked to intervene in the proceeding,” the company said in a written response to questions from The Eagle. “AT&T remains interested in both broadband issues and the work of the KCC.”

Larry Gates, Director of Utilities in Chanute, 
told the Eagle that the city is ready to issue the revenue bonds and begin connecting customers as soon as the KCC approves the request.

In their filing, the city also commented on the the outdated nature of the state law requirement. From the Eagle article:

In the commission case, Chanute is arguing that the 1947 law was actually designed to protect municipalities from defaulting on bonds because of private-sector competition, not to protect private-sector providers from competition with local government.

Since then, lawmakers and regulators have almost entirely deregulated telecommunication services, counting on competition in the marketplace to keep providers from charging too much or providing substandard service.

“This reasoning (behind the 1947 law) reflects an environment where construction of a telecommunications network was considered a natural monopoly, where one company could supply an entire market at less cost than two or more companies,” Chanute’s filing said. “That is no longer the case in the telecommunications marketplace.”

The 1947 law “does really sort of fly in the face of everything that has been said about competition,” [David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board] said. “It’s either a competitive world and you can stand on your own two feet, or it’s not.”

KCC staff agreed with Chanute. At the time the law was implemented, it was meant to protect the interests of the monopolies that served the rural areas, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 shifted policy to encouraging competition.

There are other providers in the area, writes staff, but none of them can provide the caliber of services Chanute will offer. Because AT&T and Cable One do not offer services anywhere near the gigabit FTTH planned by Chanute's broadband utility, there would be no duplication of services.

Staff also agrees with the city, when it analyzes the need for the expansion. From the staff report [PDF]:

Upgrading Chanute's facilities would not only benefit the citizens of Chanute but its community anchor institutions and community business partners as well. In addition, by improving and expanding upon the fiber optic network currently in place by Chanute, Chanute is protecting its current investment. Staff therefore believes the expansion plans as contemplated are appropriate for the municipality and its consumers, and for the protection of its investors.

For a look back at Chanute's story, listen to episode #16 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris interviewed Larry Gates and then City Manager JD Lester.

Mark Cuban Supports Local Authority on Muni Networks

Even guys who don't support Title II handling of the Internet support local authority. Even if those guys are cigar smokin', basketball-team buyin', swimmin'-with-the-shark type guys. We are referring to a recent interview with entrepreneur Mark Cuban in the Washington Post.

While the interview covered Cuban's fear that changes may stifle innovation, we zeroed in on one particular question and his very astute response:

WP: Cities in Colorado have recently bucked a spate of recent bans on municipal broadband and approved letting themselves build their own ISPs. Do you support government getting involved in broadband in that way?

Cuban: I love it. I have no problem with it at all. 

(Image of Mark Cuban from his Twitter page @mcuban)

Muscatine, Iowa, Upgrading to FTTH

Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) announced in late November that it will upgrade its municipal hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) communications network to an FTTH network. The upgrade will allow Muscatine to offer gigabit speeds. Construction is set to begin in 2016; the FTTH network is scheduled to go live in 2017.

According to the press release, the community hopes to capitalize on the new technology for economic development opportunities, better residential services, and replace an aging system with future proof infrastructure. From the press release [PDF]:

Consideration was also given to two other plans that would have either maintained or incrementally improved the existing HFC system. As stewards of the public trust, the Board of Trustees felt the other options were costly short-term fixes and that FTTH was clearly the superior option.

“Tonight’s decision assures that Muscatine Power and Water will continue to be a leader in telecommunications,” said LoBianco, “the new system will be able meet the bandwidth needs of the community for years to come while reducing maintenance and improving reliability. It ensures that the communications capabilities in Muscatine are as good as in any large city which enjoys the benefits of FTTH technology.”

Muscatine sits in the far southeast corner of the state and is home to approximately 29,000 people. The community established a municipal water utility in 1900, an electric utility in 1922, and its communications utility in 1997. According to the press release, the community was unhappy with the previous incumbent and an overwhelming majority of local voters elected to establish what is now called MachLink. The network offers video and Internet access.

A Muscatine Journal article reporting on a recent meeting of the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees notes that the project will be funded with an interdepartmental loan, one of the three most common funding mechanisms. (For more on funding municipal networks, check out our fact sheet [PDF].)

The article also reported that the communications utility posted a $64,000 profit in October which was higher than expected. In fact,  the entire year has been better than expected, even though revenues were down: 

The communications utility posted profit of $64,134 in October, compared to the budgeted profit of $43,928. A 3.7 percent decrease in revenue was driven by a lower number of cable television subscribers, but expenses were lower due to lower programming fees. A loss of $26,723 was budgeted for the year through October. Instead, profit of $470,960 was posted.

Burlington Sells Burlington Telecom, Continues to Operate the Network

In November, Burlington's City Council approved the much anticipated settlement with Citibank. Burlington Telecom, a nearly citywide gigabit FTTH network owned by the city, was run into the ground by a previous mayor. That Mayor's Administration hid major cost overruns from the public for years, resulting in a challenging situation for the community. In the the world of municipal broadband, this is a significant anomaly.

The City found itself owing CitiBank some $33 million with no clear path on how to pay it. After years of arguing in court, the situation is largely resolved. Early in 2014, Citibank and Burlington reached a settlement [PDF] in which the the city would pay $10.5 million and a share of BT's future value in exchange for Citibank to drop its $33 million lawsuit. The obligation will include funds contributed by the city's codefendant, McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan P.C. law firm.

BT revenues, net cash flow, and the city's insurance carrier will contribute to the city's obligation, but the lion's share will be paid for with bridge financing from a local source. Trey Pecor, a Burlington business owner, has secured funding and created Blue Water LLC. The city will transfer ownership of the network to Blue Water in exchange for $6 million and will continue to lease the network from Blue Water at about $558,500 per year for a maximum period of five years. The goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. At that time, Blue Water and the city will divide any proceeds from the sale. 

As part of the agreement, the City Council and the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) needed to approve the terms. The PSB is the state entity tasked with regulating utility rates and related financial matters in Vermont. On November 3rd, the PSB approved the transaction unanimously [PDF of the Order].

A Vermont Digger article reported that several organizations, including the Center for Media and Democracy, the Regional Educational Television Network and Vermont Community Access Media, requested a six month public engagement process before the deal be approved. The groups, known as Burlington Access Management Organizations (BAMOs) were concerned that a distant corporate owner that may purchase network, will not be community-minded in its decisions. The BAMOs also requested that three to five people with experience in telecom, alternative corporate structures, and public engagement, be added to the Advisory Board. From the VTDigger article:

The Public Service Board did not agree to the request. The board said it would be premature to impose conditions on a prospective sale, and that any future owner will be expected to comply with the same public access obligations the city must meet now.

“While the conditions requested by BAMOs may provide a useful mechanism to explore issues in connection with a prospective future sale of BT’s Assets, the Board declines to impose such conditions,” the PSB wrote.

Unfortunately, the PSB missed the fundamental point - the required public access obligations are quite small. Burlington Telecom, like most municipal fiber networks, went above and beyond the bare minimum required by law. The only way to ensure Burlington continues providing great customer service, high quality connections, and additional services to the community is by making it sure it is accountable to the community, not distant shareholders.

We cannot help but be disappointed at the continued pain caused by the failure of Mayor Kiss's administration to be honest with the people of Burlington - a reminder of how important transparency is for local governments.

We strongly support the efforts of local groups to ensure that when the network is next sold, it is to a locally rooted entity that will ensure the high level of service BT has delivered will continue.

The PSB did grant the city's requested reprieve from a condition that the network connect every address in Burlington. There are still approximately 3,250 addresses that BT does not reach, often in areas with underground utilities or condos where the owner is not cooperative. In order to make the system more enticing to potential buyers, the PSB removed the obligation from the utility's certificate of public good.

On November 17th, the City Council approved the settlement along with bridge financing documents, which will allow the process to move forward. The Council also decided to expand the BTAB and approved operating guidelines. WPTZ reported that there were local residents attending the council meeting who spoke out against the sale, but the Council voted to approve unanimously. From WPTZ:

"Given the circumstances that we were faced with over the past five years, this settlement is the best solution, the best possible outcome from our saga with Burlington Telecom," said Karen Paul, a Burlington city council member.

Local coverage on the City Council settlemet approval from WPTZ:

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Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 5, 2014

After successfully fighting a Kansas state law proposed in February that would have outlawed community networks entirely, the city of Chanute is being required to follow an outdated 1940s law that requires them to ask permission to move forward with a bond initiative that would fund a high speed Internet network to businesses and residents. And, AT&T is officially intervening in the city’s efforts. 

Our most favoritest headline of the week about this story comes from Brad Reed with BGR: “AT&T wants to know why a town is building a 1Gbps network when it already offers 6Mbps DSL." Yah, Chanute, what gives?!

Dion Lefler with the Wichita Eagle reported this week that the city has been ordered to follow a 1940 state law requiring it to get permission to sell bonds that would fund a project to provide the town’s 9,000 residents with high speed Internet. 

Chanute officials say the law requiring commission permission to expand is outdated, because it was written in the days when the telephone company was a monopoly… “AT&T is the incumbent telephone company and Cable One is the incumbent cable TV operator,” the city’s filing to the commission said. “Neither of those providers offers the level of service throughout Chanute’s utility service area that Chanute will be able to offer its citizens as a result of the investment planned for Chanute’s network. As such, there will not be a duplication of existing services, even if such a consideration were still relevant today.

Kate Cox with the Consumerist goes further:

AT&T has a long track record of very vocally opposing even the mere idea of municipal broadband projects. The company has worked hard and spent lots of money helping enact state laws that prohibit public broadband expansion.

They have also argued that not only should public fiber projects be banned any place that they (or anyone else) already serves, but that those projects should be banned anywhere they might choose to do business later on.

And Jon Brodkin with Ars Technica noted the real cause for AT&T’s worry: the city would charge people just $5 more per month for Gig service than AT&T does for its bargain-basement 6mbps service. Yikes!

Wendy Davis with MediaPost covered the story as well:

If the new network moves forward, residents would have every reason to defect from AT&T in favor of the new service -- unless AT&T can step up its offerings.

So far, AT&T hasn't shown an inclination to do so in Chanute. While AT&T plans to expand its fiber optic network to dozens of cities, Chanute isn't one of them, according to advocacy group Public Knowledge. That organization today issued a public call for AT&T to avoid putting up obstacles to a new fiber network. “No one should deny rural America the choice of building high-speed broadband networks in a world where the Internet is so vital to a community’s growth.

MSMolly with FireDogLake offered her insight this week on the delicate balance ISP’s walk when it comes to regulation:

AT&T isn’t opposed to government handouts, though, as long as they are flowing to the private sector. The company argues that community broadband networks “should not receive any preferential tax treatment,” and that only private companies should be given special treatment. AT&T said, “Indeed, any tax incentives or exemptions should be provided, if at all, to private sector firms to induce them to expand broadband deployment to unserved areas.”

AT&T has been going state by state paying asking state lawmakers to get rid of most remaining consumer protections, such as those requiring continued 911 access to the elderly, so it can get out of DSL markets it doesn’t want to upgrade.

But AT&T isn’t all bad, right? I mean last week we reported that the telecom giant would back down on its threats to halt fiber rollouts, that’s good, right?

Thomas Gryta with the Wall Street Journal and Brian Fung with the Washington Post say that while AT&T might have said it would pull its investments in fiber if they didn’t get more certainty from the FCC about net neutrality, what they really meant was...

The issue is complex for AT&T. As a major Internet service provider, it has a deep interest in how the Internet is governed, but the company also needs approval from the commission for its pending acquisition of satellite broadcaster DirecTV.

In other words, “We didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers before the FCC approves our merger.”

Community Broadband Communities

The Slog’s Ansel Herz is at it again. He is frustrated that Seattle has not yet invested in a municipal fiber network. The city’s chief tech officer, Michael Mattmiller says the study he’s commissioning on muni broadband will likely not be complete until April (these things cannot be completed overnight!).

The threat of competition is giving cities all over the country more power in franchise agreement talks. Bill Neilson with Broadband Reports cites Lawrence, Massachusetts; Lexington, Kentucky; and New York City for using their franchise talks to get more from incumbents, or head for the door. 

After being told for years that previous franchise agreements would magically increase local jobs and improve customer service (which never occurred on either front), some cities are now demanding guarantees in writing before agreeing to a franchise agreement. Now, some cities are also demanding that franchise agreements be reduced in years so that cities may see just how well the cable providers are acting during the agreed upon years.

Residents in Torrington, CT are one step closer to fiber in their city. The council approved using part of $1.7 million in Nutmeg Network grant money set aside to fund a fiber optic connection for community anchors. The network would run alongside its existing AT&T connection.

Alaska's Statewide Broadband Task Force is up and running. The group is committed to bringing 100 mbps speeds to every household in Alaska by 2020. Carey Restino with the Arctic Sounder has the story:

"We have reached a point in the development of modern communications wherein the Internet is firmly woven into our fabric of everyday life. America is in a race to the top in order to compete in the globalization of trade and development," the report concludes. "Alaska is part of this race. The same factors that make broadband deployment difficult in Alaska — geographic remoteness, lack of roads, high costs — also mean that Alaska, more so than other states, has the most to gain from making sure that affordable and reliable high-speed broadband is available to all its residents. Very soon, social pressure will be too great for government and civil society not to act, whether collaboratively or alone. A clear plan is in the best interest of the state."

Despite its relatively small dollar amount, communities in Minnesota are competing for the state's $20 million broadband kitty. Jenna Ross with the Star Tribune:

[Ron] Brodigan, owner of the Snowshoe Country Lodge on Sand Lake [near Two Harbors], gets Internet service with download speeds of 5 megabits per second — “almost adequate,” he said. Once the county’s fiber-to-the-premises project reaches him, he expects to pay $80 a month for 30-megabit service. “It’s going to be a boon when we get it,” he said. “But it’s been setback after setback,” he said, referring to challenges from cable companies and other delays. But, he added, “they’re really humping now.”

Princeton Voters Authorize FTTH Make-Ready Funds in Record Turn-Out

On November 18th, 90% of voters at Princeton's special town meeting approved a measure to fund $1.2 million in make-ready costs bringing the community one step closer to fiber connectivity. The number voters who attended the meeting broke the previous attendance record set 15 years ago by 30%.

We introduced the central Massachusetts town of 3,300 in 2013. The community suffered from poor Internet connectivity negatively impacting its schools, real estate market, and economic development. Since then, the community voted to create a Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate funds to keep the project moving forward.

Community leaders have investigated several options and last fall entered into a relationship with the Matrix Design Group. According to the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF], Matrix will design, build, and operate the FTTH network for a period of 20 years. At the end of that time period, Princeton Broadband Municipal Light Plant has the option of renewing that relationship or purchasing the network for $1.

As their contribution, Princeton will provide rights-of-way, police details during construction, powered telecom shelters, and will pay for utility pole make-ready costs. According to an article in the Landmark:

The make ready work includes replacing approximately 80 utility poles, and moving telephone and electrical lines on 450 poles, providing housing for the electrical components needed to operate the system, and paying for police details during the make ready work.

The borrowing is expected to cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000, about $10 a month or $115 a year increase on their taxes for 12 years. Internet service plus telephone will cost $115 a month. Once a contract is negotiated with Matrix, construction on the make ready phase would start in January 2015 and the project would be completed by January 2016.

It looks like the network will offer Internet connections of 30-50 Mbps; currently options for residents vary from an average 1 Mbps download over Wi-Fi to 1 - 3 Mbps download DSL. According to the PrincetonBroadband.com summary of the deal, 4G LTE in town ranges from 2 - 18 Mbps download. It is not clear if people can purchase a connection faster than 50 Mbps with the current plans.

Princeton Broadband Logo

Preliminary subscription rates are $95 per month for Internet and $115 per month for Internet and voice; video will not be offered. The prices are comparable with what some Princeton residents pay now for much slower "up to" speeds though some do pay less for DSL currently. More detailed info on subscriber costs is also available on the PrincetonBroadband website.

Residents who subscribe during the initial fiber hookup will pay an early discounted installation fee of $250 - $350 if the house is within 250 feet from the road. Early subscribers are committing for two years from the date the network is live. Customers who subscribe later will pay $1,250 - $1,550 to connect.

In compliance with state law, the community must hold a second vote to approve a Proposition 2.5% debt-limit waiver. The town will need to pass the measure by a majority, at which time it will be able to proceed with funding for the make-ready costs. The second vote is scheduled for December 9th. Leverett went through a similar process.

While Princeton's approach minimizes financial exposure, they still carry some risks associated with private ownership of the infrastructure. The network could be sold to a different provider, for instance. From the PrincetonBroadband website:

But we should all be very careful with basing our vote on quibbles with the plan or dreams of a knight in shining armor just around the corner. There are no Plan B’s. There are no other suitors waiting in the wings. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon have even gone so far as to formally decline an offer to come into town. And, doing it ourselves would cost taxpayers over three times more than the Matrix plan would.

Compared to any imaginable alternative, the Matrix plan significantly reduces our tax burden, minimizes our town’s risk, maximizes services to the entire town (not just the most densely populated areas), and is future proofed for generations to come.

Princeton Voters

Voters at the November 18th Town Meeting display pink cards that represent their approval of the Princeton Broadband project. (Thank you to Stan Moss for the photo.)

"Ask Us Anything" on Organizing for a Fiber Network Ready For Viewing

On November 5th, we opened up the lines of communication for our first "Ask Us Anything: An Open Talk on Muni Networks" event. That event is now available on our YouTube Channel or viewable below.

We find many communities and their citizens are interested in exploring municipal networks as a possible method to improve connectivity but don't know how to get started. We approached the event with no agenda or expectations and spent the entire hour answering questions.

As we expected, participants asked about ways to grow support, what challenges to expect, and how to find resources to educate the community. There were many other questions that represented a broad spectrum of involvement in community network projects. This was our first attempt in this format and we are about to announce an invitation to a second discussion that will be held on Wednesday, December 17, at 3 PM EST.

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Rio Blanco County Plans for Deployment in Colorado

Earlier this month, voters in several Colorado communities decided to approve ballot measures to reclaim local telecommunications authority. One of those places, Rio Blanco County in the northwest corner of the state, has already committed funds to develop infrastructure.

According to a recent article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the county considers the issue so critical, it will dedicate $2 million in federal mineral lease revenues, and $5 million from the general fund to improve connectivity. County leaders say they will also seek funds from the Department of Local Affairs.

Rio Blanco County is planning an open access model. From the article:

[County Commissioner Shawn] Bolton said the county won’t provide broadband service itself, but instead will install infrastructure such as fiber lines.

“By providing infrastructure, then we can get the service providers to come here and provide the service at a competitive rate,” he said.

In March, the County, the County Seat of Meeker, several local school districts, and a list of other partnering entities, filed a Rural Broadband Expression of Interest [PDF] with the FCC. In their documentation, they noted that the private and public entities in the region had been working together to develop better connectivity since 2001. They named themselves the Western Colorado IT Cooperative (WCITC).

According to the Expression of Interest, fiber resources are now in place that connect a limited number of public facilities. The County Courthouse, the Rio Blanco County Road and Bridge, the Town of Meeker, its pubic library, and its schools all connect via the metropolitan area network (MAN). A medical center, also connects to the existing fiber network.

Population density is low in Rio Blanco County at approximately 2 people per square mile. Seventy-five percent of the county's 3,200 square miles is federally owned land. Most residents live in either Meeker or Rangley.

Community leaders in Rio Blanco County recognize that their geography and limited population will not inspire incumbents to build to serve local residents or businesses. They also realize they will need to take matters into their own hands. From the article:

“When it comes to putting broadband in our county, it’s not a good business model for anybody,” said County Commissioner Shawn Bolton.