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Decorah Fiber Network Wins Civic Award

The town of Decorah, Iowa, population 8,000, lies along the winding banks of the Iowa River. So close to the river, in fact, that in 2008 its floodwaters swamped parts of the town, including the emergency operations center. That unfortunate event got city leaders thinking about how to ensure secure and redundant communications in future emergencies. The city, county, and school district decided to partner on a fiber optic network build that would meet their shared needs.

The resulting project, called the Decorah Metronet, has lead to the city being named an “All-Star Community” by the Iowa League of Cities. The award was given last month in recognition of Decorah’s innovative policies, and specifically singled out the fiber optic network for its contributions to public safety, cost savings, and intergovernmental cooperation. The award is given each year “based on innovative efforts in areas such as urban renewal, development, preservation, service sharing or quality of life improvements.”

Completed in the fall of 2013, Metronet boasts an 11-mile, 144-strand fiber optic loop. It connects 18 facilities belonging to six different anchor institutions: the city of Decorah, Winneshiek County, Decorah Community Schools, Luther College, the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and the Winneshiek Medical Center. Metronet not only provides redundancy and savings on connectivity costs, but data center services and offsite backup for its member institutions as well. 

When the network went live last November, City Manager Chad Bird emphasized its economic potential and indicated it would eventually offer extensions to individuals and businesses: 

"I see the Metronet fiber being an economic development tool for our community -- having it in place and having excess fiber available for the commercial industrial segment of our economy. I can think of technology heavy business -- call centers or data centers - that might appreciate having excess fiber capacity."

The project was the recipient of a $520,000 federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant in 2010 which provided the bulk of the initial construction budget, although each anchor institution contributed $75,000 in matching funds over three years as well. 

Congratulations to Decorah, and notch another victory for Iowa’s rural community network movement. 

The Dalles Pays off Its Network Debt Ahead of Schedule

Of the more than 400 communities around the country that have built and benefitted from community networks, the town of The Dalles in Oregon may have a case for the title of “most bang for the buck.” Their commitment of $10,000 12 years ago to leverage a $1.8 million “QLife” fiber optic network has lead to a massive, $1.2 billion dollar investment from Google in the form of a huge data center, employing nearly 200 people and generating millions in tax revenues for the local community. And at the end of September, the QLife board of directors announced that they had paid off the loans used for network construction more than three years ahead of schedule. 

We covered part of The Dalles’ network story two years ago: a small city of just 13,000 was told by Sprint in 2000 that it would have to wait 5 to 10 years for broadband Internet access. Meanwhile, local manufacturing was declining and employers were overlooking the town due to its outdated infrastructure. Before building the QLife network, The Dalles had no access to the major long haul fiber pathway that happened to run right through town. As city manager Nolan Young told Andrew Blum in an interview for his book “Tubes,” it was like “being a town that sits next to a freeway but has no on ramp.” 

The city decided enough was enough, and partnered with the county and the local public utility district on a plan for a $1.8 million, 17 mile fiber optic loop through the community that would connect anchor institutions and offer middle mile access to private providers. 

The nascent network faced opposition from a local telecom in the form of a lawsuit, which scared the public utility district away from the partnership. It had another setback when a private partner declared bankruptcy, saddling the public agency with an $800,000 loan. The city and Wasco County pressed forward with their partnership, however, and secured half of the needed $1.8 million in state and federal grants while covering the rest with loans. The city made a one-time contribution of $10,000. QLife pursued a cautious strategy, building in successive phases only after enough subscriber revenue commitments were in place to cover the requisite loan payments.  

The city’s small investment has paid off many, many times over. Major network construction was completed in 2003, and in 2005 Google announced they would locate a major new data center in the town, bringing 150 jobs and a $600 million investment. Pleased with their easy access to major fiber optic infrastructure and seeing massive growth in the demand for cloud-based applications, Google announced last year that they would double down on The Dalles, investing another $600 million and creating dozens more jobs to grow their already huge facility. 

The benefits of the network aren’t limited to a single major employer. Schools, a community college, a hospital, and a network of medical offices all use QLife’s fiber directly for fast, reliable, and secure data services. Seven different telecom and internet providers also lease fiber from QLife, increasing the competition and service quality available in the area.

Even Sprint, the incumbent who told the city to wait a decade for broadband, started upgrading their own network six months after QLife construction began. QLife and Google have even partnered to provide free WiFi throughout downtown and many of the surrounding areas. Now, with their debt retired ahead of schedule, the network is running an operating surplus in the hundreds of thousands that could be put to any number of good uses. 

Of course, not every town that builds a fiber optic network will immediately get a $1.2 billion data center. The Dalles had several factors working in their favor when wooing Google, including cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville Power Administration dams along the Columbia River and long haul fiber optic lines running right past their doorstep. However, City leaders were smart enough to see the opportunities in front of them and determined enough to persevere in the face of opposition. Their bet has paid off immensely.

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

City Net Brings 100 Gbps to Santa Monica, California

For one of the fastest municipal networks in the U.S., travel to Santa Monica and sample City Net. The City just announced network capacity and speed upgrades to 100 Gbps. City Net is available to many local businesses and connects key community anchor institutions.

The entertainment, tech, and healthcare industries have a strong presence in Santa Monica and City Net officials expect them to be among the first to take advantage of the upgrade. Other area businesses are applauding the upgrade. From the press release:

Jeremy Foint, IT Manager of Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel overwhelmingly approves, “With the annual American Film Market campus, tech expos, and Fortune500 corporate events convening in Santa Monica, it’s comforting to know Loews can accommodate the most demanding network requirements. I know CityNet will take care of us.”

We dug deep into the story of this publicly owned network for our case study, Santa Monica City Net: In Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. We also spoke with CIO Jory Wolf for episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Santa Monica took a measured approach by reinvesting funds they saved when they ended leased services. They now offer dark and lit fiber. The community has won numerous awards.

Three New Companies Move to the Silicon Bayou

In the past few months, Lafayette has drawn in three high tech companies that will create approximately 1,300 well-paying positions. In addition to the community's commitment to boost its high-tech workforce, better connectivity offered by LUS Fiber helped attract the new businesses.

According to a Daily World article, the most recent addition is Perficient, Inc. The information technology and management consulting company is based in St. Louis. Perficient will add 50 new positions by the end of 2015 and another 245 over the next 6 years; average annual salary will be $60,000. The area should also see 248 additional indirect jobs. Perficient leadership intends to recruit from South Louisiana Community College and University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

This past spring, CGI announced it would employ 400 high-tech employees in a new finance facility in Lafayette. CGI will also recruit from the local high-tech educational programs. James Peake from CGI told the Advocate that the company has made an effort to keep tech positions "onshore" rather than sending them overseas. From the article:

CGI Vice President Dave Henderson cited UL-Lafayette’s top-ranked computer science program and Lafayette’s growing workforce and fiber-optic network.

This past summer, start-up Enquero announced it would open a tech center in Lafayette. The Milpitas, California company plans to hire 350 new employees by the end of 2017. City officials also expect to see 354 new indirect positions. According to Bloomberg Business Week, Enquero executives considered New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and four other states.

From City-Parish President Joey Durel's official statement:

"These are exactly the kinds of jobs we had in mind when we launched Lafayette's fiber-optic initiative in 2004, so I am thrilled to see that companies are starting to recognize what Lafayette has to offer with its affordable, gigabit speeds...I know Enquero will not regret their decision to locate in Lafayette. This community’s investment in itself is paying off.”

Business, Education Call on Culver City to Invest in Muni Fiber in L.A. County

Last fall, Culver City hired a consultant to develop a design and business plan for a possible fiber network project. Recently, prominent business leaders and parents of local school children have publicly expressed their support for a municipal network.

Culver City, also known as "The Heart of Screenland" is situated in west L.A. County, surrounded primarily by the City of Los Angeles. Approximately 39,000 people live in this community that is beginning to draw in the tech industry. In addition to Disney's Maker Studios, Apple owns Culver City's Beats Electronic, known for high-tech headphones. Culver City wants to stay current to compete with Santa Monica, home to a number of tech businesses that connect to its publicly owned City Net.

The L.A. Weekly reports billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of NantWorks, has encouraged city leaders to move forward with the project. His specific request is that five business districts be included in the network deployment. NantWorks, located in one of those districts, provides cloud-based operating systems to support telehealth. According to the article, Soon-Shiong is rallying other business leaders:

Soon-Shiong has been encouraging other business owners in the area to support the plan, which is expected to come before the City Council sometime in October.

"He feels this is key," said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Soon-Shiong. "He’s talked to various city officials and told them how important he thinks it is, not only to his business, but to attracting additional businesses to Culver City."

Local elected officials report positive feedback as the city reaches out to determine interest in the project:

"We're still attempting to gauge the degree of interest," said Councilman Andy Weissman, though he added, "I'm confident it's going to happen."

The business community is not the only sector in Culver City seeking better connectivity. The Front Page Online recently published an op-ed from the group United Parents of Culver City. Regarding Soon-Shiong's statement about the importance of the project, the President of the parents' organization writes:

We agree.

We will take it a step further: This is key to the future of our schools, too.

...

Parents interested in technology issues are well aware that bandwidth limitations have created problems in our district. Those problems only will grow worse as technology becomes more integrated in the classroom environment and as online testing becomes more prevalent.

The Guardian Visits Chattanooga

The Guardian recently ran an article covering Chattanooga EPB's fiber network. The article tells the story of the birth of the network, the challenges the community faced to get its gigabit service, and how the network has sculpted the community.

Reporter Dominic Rushe, mentioned how the city has faced legal opposition from incumbents that sued to stop the network. They continue to hound the EPB today, most recently by trying to stop the city's FCC petition to expand its services. But even in a fiercely competitive environment, EPB has succeeded. From the article:

The competitive disadvantage they face is clear. EPB now has about 60,000 residential and 4,500 business customers out of a potential 160,000 homes and businesses. Comcast hasn’t upgraded its network but it has gone on the offensive, offering cutthroat introductory offers and gift cards for people who switch back. “They have been worthy competitors,” said [Danna] Bailey,[vice president of EPB]. “They’ve been very aggressive.”

Rushe spoke with Chris:

"In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A key difference between a Comcast or an AT&T and EPB goes beyond the numbers. Rushe described the artistic renaissance happening in Chattanooga with the help of top notch service from EPB:

The city is making sure schools have access to devices for its children to get online. Fancy Rhino, a marketing and film production firm backed by Lamp Post, has been working with The Howard School, an inner-city school, to include them in the city’s renaissance.

...

Bailey said EPB could afford to be more community minded because of its structure. “We don’t have to worry about stockholders, our customers are our stockholders. We don’t have to worry about big salaries, about dividends. We get to wake up everyday and think about what, within business reason, is good for this community,” she said.

“The private sector doesn’t have that same motivation. It’s perfectly fair, they are motivated by profits and stockholders. they have a lot of capital already invested in existing infrastructure. It would be costly to overbuild themselves.”

The local business environment is, naturally, shifting toward a high tech center. Rushe checked in with one of the many incubators, Lamp Post, in the once abandoned downtown district:

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

Mayor Andy Berke addressed the community's drive to offer gig service:

Berke said they had no choice. “The Gig wasn’t coming here anytime soon without us doing it,” he said. “It was going to go a lot of places before it came to Chattanooga. For us, like a lot of cities, you either decide to do it yourself or you wait in line. We chose to do it ourselves.”

First Muni Fiber Net in Maine - Community Broadband Bits Episode 115

By building a fiber line to allow some local businesses to get next-generation Internet access, Rockport became the first municipal fiber network in the state of Maine. Town Manager Richard Bates joins us for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the financing behind the network and their partnership with local Internet Service Provider, GWI, to improve access to the Internet.

Bates also explains how they had to ask voters for authorization to use a tax-increment financing approach to paying for the network to spur economic development. Nearby communities have been watching to see what happens.Read our story about this network here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.