In Kansas, Ottawa Launches Own Fiber Optic Network

Ottawa, located in east central Kansas, recently launched its own municipal fiber network. The community of 13,000 in Franklin County watched nearby Chanute build and establish its own broadband utility. Ottawa plans a similar incremental strategy. Both communities boast strong farming traditions and host industrial employers that could not get what they needed from the existing providers.

I spoke with Chuck Bigham, IT Director for the City of Ottawa, who gave me some nuts and bolts on the network. I also touched base with City Manager Richard U. Nienstedt, both are heavily involved in the establishment of the network.

Like in Chanute, local leaders have long nourished a vision for better connectivity. In recent years, they realized the vision was not only attainable, but necessary for the community to thrive.

Approximately seventeen miles of fiber, installed by USD 290 and Franklin County in the 1990s, was already in the ground when the project began. Students and staff connected to the Internet and linked the 8-10 school district facilities via its fiber network. These pre-existing resources became the backbone of Ottawa's new utility. Cooperation between the City Municipal Utility, USD 290, and Franklin County facilitated the configuration of the new network. Ottawa now provides business Internet access, expanded educational opportunities, and a higher level of service than was previously available.

Two years ago, the City and its Chamber of Commerce reached out to major businesses to determine the need for broadband. They found businesses in Ottawa were connected through existing providers, but were unhappy with price and level of service. The community's industrial park seemed especially disadvantaged. Businesses needed better upload speeds than the existing T1s, which ran up to $600 per month. While DS3 connections were available, they were unaffordable and there was no level of service between the two options. Businesses could not convince AT&T to offer something they could afford and, as Bigham noted, the telecom giant appeared to be "milking the cow."

Map of Ottawa, Kansas

This is a common complaint among communities - the big national telephone and cable companies often refuse to upgrade their level of service because the lack of alternatives for local business connectivity means the firms cannot switch away from the existing provider.

The City approach USD 290 and Franklin County and proposed a partnership. The City would use several available fibers on the existing infrastructure to serve as the community network backbone. The School District and the County would still own the fiber asset already in place, while the City would own any added segments and the routers and switches to make it work. The City and its utility would support and manage the network 24/7. The school board and county commission approved the proposal in the fall of 2012.

The School District now pays the City $3,000 per month with monitoring and network support from the City all day, every day. USD 290 gets double the bandwidth it used to get from AT&T, when it paid nearly $6,000 per month for a DS3 connection. Paying less, but getting double, seems like a very smart investment.

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

Over the course of ten years, Ottawa has spent less than $500,000 on its next-generation community owned network. All the revenue from the network goes back into maintenance and upgrades. City government facilities and two electric substations, which used to connect only to each other, now link to the main power plant via fiber.

Neosho Community College's Ottawa Campus connects to the network. Ottawa Cooperative Association recently joined the network to take advantage of the fast upload speeds needed to send data rich reports and get timely information on grain prices. The Coop previously had a slower DSL connection. Bigham and Nienstedt both expect to see more business customers when the network expands to the Northeast Ottawa Industrial Park, the next expansion project.

Nienstadt tells us via email:

Our main emphasis has been to use it [the network utility]  as a recruiting and retention tool and be able to say that, "We have your broadband needs solved and you do not have to worry about that issue when locating in Ottawa, Kansas."  Most assuredly, some of the businesses have been able to benefit from lower broadband costs since we  started surveying and talking about a fiber optic utility.  That, quite frankly, was one of our goals.