Muni Fiber in Idaho Helps 911 Dispatch and First Responders - Community Broadband Bits Episode 173

Ammon, Idaho, continues to quietly build a future-looking open access fiber network. Though the City won't be providing services directly to subscribers, the network it is building and the model it has created could revolutionize public safety. I just spent several days with them shooting our next video on community fiber networks (look for that in January). 

In episode 173 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with City Technology Director Bruce Patterson and Systems Network Administrator Ty Ashcraft. Bruce explains how they plan to finance the network as it moves from the current residential pilot phase to being available broadly to any residents that want to connect, likely using a local improvement district model. Then Ty tells us about the portal that subscribers will be able to use to instantaneously pick and change service providers offering various services. 

Additionally, we talk about the public safety implications of their technological and collaborative approach, specifically around the horrifying prospect of an armed shooter in a public space like a school or mall. 

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."


Chris: Building something that gives control back to the end user has really been what the internet is all about, and I think what we're building here today is kind of another layer down, and it gives the end user even more control over what's available, or what's coming to their home or their business.

Lisa: Hello, this is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This is episode 173 and Chris is in Ammon, Idaho visiting with Bruce Patterson, technology director for the city and Ty Ashcroft, systems network administrator. There's some new and exciting things happening in Ammon where the city is taking a new approach to building out its open access network to bring fiber to the home. In this interview Chris also talks to Bruce and Ty about the city's award winning public safety app and how the network will open up choice for subscribers in both providers and services. Chris was in Ammon working on our next video. Now here's Chris talking with Bruce Patterson, technology director for Ammon, Idaho, and Ty Ashcroft, Ammon systems network administrator.

Chris: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm on location in Ammon, Idaho with Bruce Patterson, the technology director for the city of Ammon. Welcome to the show.

Bruce: Thank you, Chris.

Chris: Ty Ashcroft, systems network administrator, welcome to the show.

Ty: Thank you.

Chris: It's great to have you back, have you on Ty, Bruce you're back for maybe your second or third appearance, I'm not sure.

Bruce: I've lost count.

Chris: We're here, we're shooting this video on your network that will be coming out in a few months, but there's so many interesting things I wanted to just get a podcast out on it. This actually comes right on the heels of another discussion about open access that was a little bit more theoretical last week, so I think it's really interesting to talk about how you operationalize it. To start, for those who haven't listened to past podcasts, first of all you should pause it and go back and listen to it, but if you're not going to do that, Bruce, give us a very quick summary of what you're doing in Ammon.

Bruce: We're focused on trying to get to the residents and provide them with an open access network that gives them choices in services, service providers. We feel like there's value to that but for us as a small city we really have to minimize our operational costs. We're trying to automate that process for the end user.

Chris: We're going to really dig into what that means in a minute, but first I actually wanted to get into a sense of how you're paying for it because I think, and we've talked about this in the past. You paid for the stuff you have already by having the city use it for its internal uses and that justified pretty much all that you've rolled out. You've also got some roll-outs for some commercial customers as well that they've paid for, but what's the model moving forward to get the network all the way to all the homes in Ammon?

Bruce: As you can imagine it's important that a reasonable number within a particular geographic area or neighborhood want the service, so we're driving that tying to see what the take rate would be within the neighborhoods, but in terms of the financing for it, it seems logical that since fiber to your home raises your property value that we'd find some way to bond for that and put the payment for that bond as on assessment on your property tax because it does actually increase your property value so that's our goal. We do that with what they call a local improvement district. People refer to those as LIDs. 

Chris: Basically I could opt it and then there would be, based on the number of people that are opting in and the cost, that would determine how much it would cost for me and I could either write you a check for all of it, or I could put it on my property taxes.

Bruce: That's exactly right so if you want to pay for all of it, part of it up front, you can let it be bonded for. You can go down and pay a portion of it and then it's just collected as we say through your regular assessment on your property tax until it's paid off.

Chris: Do you have a sense of for an average person how much that might cost per month?

Bruce: We have a target and we feel pretty comfortable. We'd like to see it down to $15 a month on average. Obviously the payment happens a couple times a year but if you break it into a monthly cost it's going to be somewhere right between $15 and $20 a month.

Chris: Okay. If I'm the neighbor that doesn't want it, what happens to me?

Bruce: Nothing. There's no assessment on your property and that's where its interesting because you actually have to describe that LID as an opt in or an opt out, so you describe a geographic area and you say it's everything in this area except for, so that would be an opt out, or you'd say it's this geographic area, and it includes all of these. That would be an opt in so you basically describe it as an opt in or opt out, that's how you do it.

Chris: Okay and the city will not be providing any services directly, or at the very least you won't be. I mean it's actually kind of interesting in that the school district or 911 dispatch may develop an app for your system but your job is to provide the roads .

Bruce: That's right. We won't provide any service other than we do intend to provide what we're considering a lifeline service, and you and I talked about that a little bit.

Chris: Yeah we'll describe that in a second because I think it makes a little sense now to talk about how people interface with it. You had an open house here last night with people to come in and to test drive the system, and Ty, I'm wondering if you can tell me what people saw when they came in and how you walked them through what they were looking at.

Ty: One of the first things we described to the people who came to the open house last night was something that they were looking at was something that does not exist anywhere else on any other network and that's really an opportunity and the option for the customer, or the homeowner, or the business owner to take that fiber line and decide for themselves based on what services are available in the system at that moment, basically make a choice what services they want. They can take one, two, three services or none, but people that I talked to last night thought that was incredible. Something that obviously they don't have right now, they don't even have the option, a lot of people don't even have the option of more than maybe one or two internet service providers, and they've already tried both of them and they're still dissatisfied, so to have an option to actually get to more services was groundbreaking for the end.

Chris: You actually had three demo services last night and I think it helps to understand how you're breaking the service away from the fiber line itself, the physical line. When people would subscribe to one service versus a different service last night, this is in the same fiber, the same PC, were they having different experiences from the different service providers?

Ty: Definitely. We had one service that only offered 30 meg and it was from one internet provider, and we could actually see a different quality as they were doing different things on the internet versus another service provider across that same fiber, so it was kind of interesting for them to be able to see that there are different options, service providers and they offer different levels of service. According to maybe what price might be on that service maybe there's a service provider that offers a lower price, but it's sold to more customers possibly to get that price down. There's a lot of different options that they have at that point and to get that quality that they desire so maybe they're willing to pay a little more for it.

Chris: One of the things I found interesting is that the fiber actually runs into this box, and out of that box I think we're used to seeing in our homes maybe one or two cables, but this box has different ports, different Ethernet jacks basically, so you can choose which service goes to which port. One of the use cases that I found really interesting was the idea that ... In my family we might have one network that I'm on and my wife is on, and we can do whatever we want on the internet there, but I may subscribe to a second service additionally which would provide some level of filtering, and that would be the network that my children's devices were connected to and they would have no way of knowing how to jump across that basically and so it's actually a little bit better than a firewall that I have to set up myself, or some sort of filtering. I just found that to be really interesting and for me logically seeing that there's different ports helped me to understand the vision. What kind of services get you excited or interested in terms of this?

Ty: Definitely along the same lines. There's several businesses that without the internet they send everybody home because they can't do anything, so having a secondary internet connection would provide some resilience. Another service that we're talking about is healthcare. Healthcare I think is a big one because a lot of people are concerned about privacy and keeping their health records safe and not on the internet, so a service like this where we're actually dragging it from the endpoint or the user's endpoint to say a service center which is on the same network, it would never touch the internet.

Chris: What do you mean by never touch the internet?

Ty: Never touch the internet, so we build that road from your house to our service center, and say there's a server that belongs to the service provider that sits there and it also has it's own road to the people who manage that service, so that's all separate from the internet, it actually doesn't cross the internet, it stays separate.

Chris: What are the benefits of it never crossing the internet specifically?

Ty: Main benefit I would say is just the security of it all. There's no chance of a hacker trying to hack into that because it's been said that the only secure computer is a computer that is turned off or is not connected to anything, and that's basically what we're doing because its got its own individual road or pathway from one end all the way to the other end.

Chris: I think you might think of it as like the water system and a sewer system, they do not intermingle, right? They're two separate systems.

Ty: You would never want them to intermingle. That would be-

Chris: Great disaster.

Ty: Health violation, right?

Chris: Right absolutely. I also think there's a quality of service angle to that too right? When you're on the internet you've lost control of quality of service, you're using other peoples networks but if you keep it local then you have more control right?

Ty: Exactly.

Chris: We've had all these conversations about the live fire, the active shooter and just briefly tell me about that but I want to really get into how the network, the way you've configured it really gives more power than if someone was just doing it over a network that had been built that just happened to have a gig that didn't have all the wizardry and the software to find networking.

Bruce: Active shooter deals with what we're seeing around the country and it's very unfortunate is that people take guns into schools and they start to shoot people.

Chris: Now theoretically that actually could be any location.

Bruce: Yes.

Chris: In this case it was around a school demonstration.

Bruce: Yes we focused on a school. Could be a mall, could be a movie theater, all things that we've seen, could be any place the public gathers, any kind of a sporting event or anything you could do the same thing. What the idea was was that in the event that something like that happened how could we automate the process? Because the response process currently is that law enforcement simply sends everybody they can send and they send them in there in mass as fast as they can and they are simply just charging the area where they believe the shooter would be and looking for a weapon, and that's how they do it because they found they've got to minimize timeline. The longer the timeline runs the more casualties they have so they found that the best results are simply to just go in there and bring an end to the situation.

The concept was is that we would use infrastructure and ID cameras specifically in schools that already were there and the dispatch could receive those signals, but they can't really sit and monitor them, so dispatch really is only interested in that content, that video content when it's specific to them so you need some kind of event. When the event happens in other words there's a gun shot, the sensors actually send a signal to the network and tell the network to establish a connection. The connection is then of the nature that it can expand to support up to however many cameras they want, so if it's just a single camera it only utilizes what it needs but because that particular service is private and has priority we've set it up so that it will get whatever it needs so it can kick other services to the side and say you're not nearly as important to make sure dispatch gets what they want or what they need in an event.

Chris: What I find interesting then is that if you were to provision it, let's just say you wanted to do this on leased services. What 911 dispatch would almost have to have would be a gigabit, so every possible location where they would be doing that and that connection ideally would never be used. That would be a tremendous cost on 911 dispatch and it would be effectively a lost cause, because we would hope it would never be used, it may be used once or twice but they're paying 24/7 for that connection. How is your network different?

Bruce: For a municipality there's a couple of things to look at. Number one, the fiber is already in place so the school has their resources and they can terminate all of those services. I'm talking about IP services, the camera services and so forth at a single point. We have fiber there, we can plug it into that fiber, we have some automation. The fiber's already there in many cases it's already being paid for because we have other things we're doing with it, but we acknowledge at the same time that if we had an event like this those other services certainly are not of the same priority of what's currently happening, so if that fiber is there we simply just allow that to happen at no cost because it's already in our wheelhouse, it's already in our charter to do public safety so why wouldn't we do it? I think that's where it becomes a little bit different for us versus a commercial entity that looks at it and says, "If we've got to reserve one gig whether we're using it or not we don't know what's going to happen and here's the cost," it's a different motivation, a different incentive entirely than it is for us.

Chris: The scenario is basically shot rings out, you have some logic locally that determines is this a gunshot, or is it some other loud noise, and determines that it is. It automatically figures out which cameras are close and you can even do some trajectory tracing I understand. It gets that information to dispatch immediately, dispatch can immediately get that out to responders and the interesting thing is if dispatch needs to use a full gig to get 60 some high def cameras running they have that capacity available.

Bruce: That's correct, and it was pretty compelling. Obviously this was a work in development so we had some goals up front and we weren't sure exactly what the timeline would be, so we kind of set initially this goal that could we get an image to dispatch in five seconds? That was kind of our initial goal. The image at dispatch was typically a second, two seconds and typically within three to four seconds that image could be verified by dispatcher, if they're sitting there waiting when it pops up and they see it, and it can be sent to the smartphones of the responding officers within five to seven seconds. The people going in actually have an image of the shooter and a location on map on their phone showing where they are in the building within about five seconds of the shot being fired.

Chris: You sent a sheriff into a school to test this on a Saturday?

Bruce: We've tested it multiple times, yes. Sometimes on a Saturday, sometimes on weeknights. We had a request to demo it when the the students were in school so we actually did some testing with the students around the building at one point.

Chris: Wow. The other thing that I want to make sure that we touch on is, you mentioned at the beginning the lifeline service. For me this, I have a better sense once again of the kind of things that portal could enable. Ty, tell me about the lifeline system that you're developing.

Ty: Lifeline is basically, so I've got this connection that comes to my house but I don't have any service on it. It's kind of like a phone line, so a phone line, lifeline service on that would still have the ability to dial 911. You still have the ability to do what you need to do to do some of those life services.

Chris: That's if I'm not subscribed to anything?

Ty: Right, if you're not subscribed to anything at all.

Chris: Let's just say for instance I was a person who had your service, had your network, I was paying the maintenance fees which the costs potentially if I put into my mortgage, I'm looking at fees of between $30 and $40 a month perhaps to have that line on and I have had service from an ISP in the past but I've disconnected it now, so I'm not actually paying.

Ty: You've lost your job or whatever, at this point you've decided you want to save that little extra money because you've got food to buy or whatever, but we still want to provide that lifeline service which would be an internet connection. Basically you would log in to a portal, just go in and select the internet services in that portal and select lifeline and that lifeline will hook up to an internet connection. It's not going to be anything earth shattering but it's going to be enough internet to do some job applications online, or to look up information that you need to look up. It'll probably have a timer or a time limit on it. It's not going to be conducive to streaming videos or that sort of thing. It's for those life services that you need at that moment to do what you need to do get out of that rut in your life again.

Chris: Right, so if I was needing to apply for jobs or if I needed to fill out perhaps assistance from the government forms or something like that online.

Ty: Or you can't make it to the DMV so you want to pay for your car registration online, that would be an option.

Chris: Okay. Yeah, I think it's fascinating and once again it's just, in my mind this is one of those differences that the way that you guys think about the network differently because you're a part of the city or part of the community and you're looking and you're saying it's not a matter of how can we get the most dollars out of this network? It's we've built this network in a financially sustainable fashion. How now can we provide the maximum number of services to the community?

Ty: The lifeline service has had an interesting impact, the concept has, on the commercial providers because we've automated your ability to sign up and get service from an ISP to almost each and every provider, as they've listened to us describe the lifeline service they've all agreed that they want a button that says test drive our network for 24 hours. Almost all of them now recognize that what the end user can now do is sign up and leave, sign up and leave because we've automated that and so most all of them have said, "We're going to let them test drive our network for 24 hours or 30 days," so it's going to start to evolve into more of a Netflix situation where you go, you sign up, maybe give them some payment information and it's free for the first 30 days, so that you can cancel if you're unhappy with it. It's interesting what the automation does in terms of enabling the consumer to have a little more control over it.

Chris: Let me just nail that down for a second. How many phone calls do I have to make to change services and how long do I have to wait?

Ty: About five seconds, no phone calls.

Chris: It's just clicking a button and it's all done.

Ty: That's right and you can subscribe to more than one, or none.

Chris: Right because as we were talking about you could have one gig connection on one port, another gig connection on a different port from a different provider.

Ty: That's right, exactly. Another one of those, and I'll pass this over to Bruce, would also be public safety. We've talked about that a little bit but public safety back to the home user, and I'll let Bruce talk about that.

Bruce: Public safety, it used to be they provided a service, and I think in a lot of respects they've really as a result of the rise of technology feel like they're in a response mode, meaning that all these changes are coming at them and they just have to react. They don't really get an opportunity to think forward and say what would we do if we could? Our feeling is that our network allows them that opportunity to start to think about what would we do if we could? Instead of just simply saying, "Okay now we've got to figure out how to do text, now we've got to figure out how to video. We've got all these things coming at us." Instead they can now say, "We have a dedicated network and that network goes into the homes in this community. Wow do we want to use it?" It's a different though process. 

In talking with our local dispatch they've asked us to help them because they're not exactly sure how they want to do this, but what we've talked about would be similar to an enterprise collaboration service and what those typically involve ... If think about it, you sit at your desk and you're part of an enterprise or commercial organization of any size, you have an option, video chat, SMS, or you can simply pick up the phone and call. 911 could offer any of those flavors across their own private network at no additional cost to them and the homeowner could choose what they wanted and what they didn't want for emergency services. If you want an amber alert and they're going to send it out in text, you could say give me that text or you could say give it to me as an audible alarm, and not only that, I'm a night shift worker so don't give me an audible alarm through the day, because if it's an amber alert I don't want to be woken up, but yet we can give the control to the other side at dispatch and say, "What if they need to evacuate? What if it's a fire and we need to wake them up?" They could override that setting, so because we give them their own network they have all the control with the edges they need.

Chris: I find that amazing in the sense of right now I think a lot of the reverse 911 type stuff. The idea of dispatch to reach out to people who may be unaware of danger is predicated on your geographic location, but if I'm working and maybe I have a family member at home, or maybe I'm just worried about my pets, I might be notified even though I'm outside of the region, this thing is going on and it's impacting your house.

Bruce: That's exactly right. You think about the, again the commercial enterprise collaboration services you get. When you leave your desk you can forward your phone so you can do the same thing from your home, so really what we're trying to do is get the network out of the middle of your business and just make it easy for your provider and you to come to terms and do whatever you want without having to deal with us in the middle.

Chris: That's great. Are there any final thoughts as we wrap up the show? What else is really great about this network? What makes you excited to work here, Ty? Let me just say I'm guessing that's your Jeep out there, and it's been out here every minute that I've been here and I've been here a long time so you've put a lot of time in here, I can tell.

Ty: I do, it's definitely something that I'm passionate about. Building something that gives control back to the end user has really been what the internet is all about, and I think what we're building here today is kind of another layer down, and it gives the end user even more control over what's available or what's coming to their home, or their business. Just being able to select or have that option to do whatever they want with that connection including something we haven't talked about which would be kind of like a LAN party idea. 

Say I've got a business in town and I live in town. I don't want to use a VPN to connect. I want to be on my network at real speeds, so what I do is at no additional cost send myself an invite through the system from my business to my home. I can connect my house to the business over that network at gig speeds and so it puts me right on the network. I'm not slowed down, I'm not dealing with VPN issues or trying to have to log in. I can use that as a separate network at my house and my kids aren't on it. Have access to it and especially as a systems administrator I have to be tied into my systems and I have to know what's going on, and I have to be able to fix things in a moment's notice at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning when things like to happen usually.

Chris: Right. I'm just sort of imagining in a gaming scenario where you might be interested, you might be plying games with some of your friends across the internet.

Ty: That's where the LAN party idea comes from actually.

Chris: Right, let me rephrase that. I can imagine you're in a situation where you have a LAN party, you're playing these games and you have this private connection. What's interesting is that you can do that in such a way that if your wife decides to suddenly upload to Dropbox that 3 GB home video that she's been making about family it's not going to suddenly kill your ping, you're going to have that separate and you'll be able to have a high quality of service still to that local connection.

Ty: That's exactly right. The beauty of fiber is we can do all of that and more today that doesn't really cost anything more to the home subscriber, and I like to think of it as different lanes of traffic that don't touch each other, exactly like you were saying, Chris, do everything simultaneously.

Chris: Terrific. Thank you both.

Bruce: Thank you.

Ty: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa: That was Chris visiting with Bruce Patterson,1 technology director for the city of Ammon, Idaho, and Ty Ashcroft, who works for the city as systems network administrator, discussing the city's new fiber to the home project. Send us your ideas for the show, e-mail us at You can follow us on Twitter, our handle is @communitynets. If you're on Facebook you can find us by searching for Community Broadband Networks. We want to thank BKFM B Side for their song, Raise Your Hands, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 173 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.