OneCommunity's Middle Way - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 135

OneCommunity is a nonprofit organization in northeastern Ohio that has connected thousands of community anchor institutions with high capacity connections. Created as OneCleveland before expanding, it has remained a rather unique approach to expanding high quality Internet access. 

This week, CEO Lev Gonick joins us to talk about OneCommunity and its contributions to the region. As neither a private company nor a local government, Lev believes that OneCommunity offers a third way, something they often call a "community-driven" approach. We discuss how a big city like Cleveland needs to think about solving the problem of expanding Internet access broadly. 

OneCommunity has just announced the recipients of its Big Gig Challenge and Lev shares some of the lessons they learned in evaluating proposals and working with the communities that competed for the prize. Lev and I will be on a panel together again with some other great folks in Austin for Broadband Communities in the middle of April. Great deal to attend here

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

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Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."



Lev Gonick:  You know, we are in many ways an interesting, if you will, third way for building out community fiber.  Neither a traditional telco incumbent way, and not a city- or City-Hall-driven municipal activity, but really run as a nonprofit.


Lisa Gonzalez:  Hello.  This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  I'm Lisa Gonzalez.

Lev Gonick, Co-founder and CEO of OneCommunity joins Chris today.  This nonprofit has forged an alternative method to better connectivity that does not involve dependence on distant corporate providers.  OneCommunity serves anchor institutions, businesses, schools, and local government in the northeast Ohio area with a community-minded approach.  Last fall, they announced the Big Gig Challenge, a call for gigabit project proposals that will incorporate their network.  The awards, recently announced, include grant funding up to 25 percent of the project costs.  In this interview, Lev discusses the Big Gig Challenge, the OneCommunity model, and how industrial northeast Ohio came to develop its future-proof resource.

We bring you the Community Broadband Bits Podcast ad-free each week.  But we need your support.  Please consider contributing to our work.  It's easy.  Go to and click on the orange "donate" button.  Every little bit helps.  Now here's Chris and Lev Gonick from OneCommunity.


Chris Mitchell:  Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  I'm Chris Mitchell.  Today, I'm talking with Lev Gonick, the Co-founder and CEO of OneCommunity in northeastern Ohio.  Welcome to the show.


Lev Gonick:  Thanks, Chris, for having me.


Chris:  Lev, you and I will be joined together in a panel soon, down in Austin, Texas, for Broadband Communities in April.  I feel like those panels are always a lot of fun.  And I think anyone who's listening to this show, if you're enjoying the relationship in the discussion that we have, you should definitely plan to come down and see us in action live.  So -- How do you plan those sorts of things, Lev, when you are putting together a panel like that?


Lev:  Well, while it appears, probably, to the audience that these are all extemporaneous, and just going by the seat of our pants, as you know, Chris, we spend quite a bit of time, in banter and conversation, before the event.  And the craft -- the questions that are crafted may come across as spontaneous, but many of them -- or at least the initial ones -- are fairly well scripted.  Because we really want to have a conversation, rather than just, you know, expecting an hour of prepared speeches.  And, you know, over the last many years of trying to do this, including at the Broadband Communities gathering, it's turned into, I think, a -- valuable for the audience.  But I think it's equally interesting for the panelists, who keep on coming back for more.


Chris:  Yes.  And I just wanted to start the show off that way.  Because, frankly, I think it's a really fun panel discussion that we have.  And it's definitely not your average one.  So -- Lev, for people who aren't aware, maybe you could tell us a little bit about the background of OneCommunity.  And we'll dig into the history, but I'm just wondering more, you know, what are the sort of things that OneCommunity does?


Lev:  Sure.  Well, OneCommunity is a nonprofit, a provider of fiber services, including Internet services, focused in on northeast Ohio's broad public benefits ecosystem of hospitals, education, government, museums, libraries.  And we've been doing that work in northeast Ohio as a nonprofit for just over ten years now.  We have about 2500 route-miles and about 2400 facilities on-net.  And, you know, we are in many ways an interesting, if you will, third way for building out community fiber.  Neither a traditional telco incumbent way, and not a city- or city-hall-driven municipal activity, but really run as a nonprofit.  And maybe we'll get into that.


Chris:  Yes.  I definitely want to get into that.  And, I'm curious, how it got started.  And I believe the first name was OneCleveland.  Because it really came out of a collaboration of a number of entities in Cleveland.  So, maybe you can tell us how it all began.


Lev:  Sure.  And you're exactly right.  Back in 2004, a group of technologists -- CIOs, folks like myself -- I had been recruited to Cleveland from the central coast of California.  And while people always -- incidentally for the first number of years -- asked me whether I had my head checked -- moving from Monterey Bay to Cleveland, you know, I certainly joined a really -- at a really interesting point in time, where there was a lot of talent -- technology talent -- coming from the coasts to Cleveland, for various reasons.  And we got together with, you know, a group of sort of civically-minded business and economic development leaders, really sort of talking in very broad strokes about the future of northeast Ohio.  And at the time -- for your listeners, obviously -- you know, that was the definition of the [no-glossary]Rust[/no-glossary] Belt.  That was, you know, a community that was hit very, very hard.  Not only then, but also, you know, it -- ground-zero, really, of the foreclosure crisis, which is sort of, you know, four years later when that happened.  So, really, our question was, in very broad strokes, you know, what could the technology community do to contribute to the reimagining and the redevelopment and, hopefully, the reinvigoration of the region?  And one of the initiatives that I had advocated for was actually thinking about archi- you know, designing, architecting, building, operating, and managing a next-generation fiber optic network,  which, I at least asserted, would allow -- you know, be in the driver's seat, in terms of blueprinting our collective future here in the region, in a way that would analogous to, you know, many other sort of historical moments in time, when public investment was made -- or community investment was made -- in, you know, charting roads, or ports, or waterways, and things of that sort.


Chris:  So let me ask you about the nuts and bolts.  Because you're -- you know, you're a high-level person, but you're also a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, from everything that I've been able to tell.  Kind of like -- we just recently did an interview with Elliot Noss of Ting, ...


Lev:  Sure.


Chris:  ... Tucows.  And, you know, I met you through a lot of the same sort of circuits of people that were really concerned about the Open Internet and expanding access. So, you know, I've gotten to know you better than I know many of the guests on this show.  And I'm just curious.  You know, OneCommunity is a nonprofit.  But, you know, what exactly does it do?


Lev:  Sure.  Well, you know, we have grown from, you know, OneCleveland, when we were only based in Cleveland, to now touching 24 counties in northeast Ohio.  We, with public support -- most of it through the stimulus fund -- have built out a very robust next-generation network.  We now have subscribers to the network.  Almost all of healthcare in northeast Ohio.  Most of education.  Certainly almost all of higher education.  Most -- many of the counties use OneCommunity for their broadband needs.  Everything up to -- and maybe we'll get to this as well -- some really exciting multi-gig kinds of network needs that are being deployed here in the region.  And, you know, we are today self-sufficient and self-reliant on subscriber fees, who make OneCommunity their Internet service platform for their needs -- not only to the Internet but also to their data centers, and even their dark fiber needs, that they have.


Chris:  And you've often worked in cooperation with all the other providers in the area, if I remember correctly.  I mean, we're not just talking about the usual suspects of the local companies that are willing to work together.  But you've also worked with some of the biggest companies in the nation, I believe.


Lev:  Right.  I mean, I think what we've managed to do here is -- again, I'll come back to this notion of the third way -- you know, because we do have a public benefit mission, and yet we aren't kind of, you know, those people in city hall, we have managed to craft relationships that are informed largely by pragmatics that drive much of the telecommunications industry.  And that means, in very practical terms, that, you know, we bid for customers, using other telecommunication providers' infrastructure.  We team with competitors that have -- then help us with last-mile activity, when it makes sense for the customer.  We actually have what we call Type II network services, which in fact means that some of our route-miles of fiber are actually on a competitor's lit fiber service, because it's actually, you know, it ends up being a better cost model for our customers.  And, yes, you know, in a significant number of cases, we're dealing with the top-tier telecom providers.  National providers.  As well as, you know, folks who, you know, specialize in regional fiber.  And so, again, I think, for those of us who operate networks, while I think we all imagine, perhaps, the -- in general terms, that somehow we might own the network end-to-end, in practical terms, that's actually not economically viable for most of us.  And, in fact, unless you're AT&T -- which really is singular in the way it approaches its network builds, given how deep the pockets are -- everyone else actually operates in a manner consistent with what I've just outlined.


Chris:  One of the reasons that we picked now to have you on -- because I've always wanted to have you on as a guest -- is -- there's a big contest that you've just announced the winners for.  And I believe it's the "Big Gig Challenge."  Am I getting that right?


Lev:  Yeah, that's right.  I mean, we've had a series of really fun announcements at the end of the year now -- just the beginning of the new year here.  You know, we started with an announcement -- with a grant that we actually receive with the city of Cleveland for deploying a 100-gig network for a commercial use.  And then, we turned around and actually had a reverse grant opportunity, where we actually asked the -- some 80 cities that are in our footprint if they would be interested in OneCommunity investing in their city, on a, you know, partnership basis, to actually help them build the fiber, and, together, use that fiber for -- whether it was economic development purposes, or whether it was, you know, their municipal operations.  Or actually trying to help advance, you know, an anchor institution's work in that community.  So, yes, yeah, we ran a process through the fall.  In many ways, you know, we were inspired by at least what Google managed to pull off when it went national with making its call for expressions of interest, and having Google invest.  And we had while we had $1.49 to invest, as opposed to Google's money, you know, we did get almost two dozen cities responding with a letter of intent, in the fall.  And then we worked through a process with them, including detailed engineering work and economic development and business plans.  And, literally, just earlier this week, we actually announced our four winners -- which are geographically diverse.  And, also, I'm going to have to say, quite interesting in terms of opportunities for both the communities that are involved, as well as OneCommunities' interest in co-investing.  And I think it's really a series of win-wins out there.  The cities themselves are thrilled to be joining the national gig fiber work that is clearly, you know, being led by yourself and others in the community, who are working on trying to extend gig fiber into the municipal space.  And at the same time, very practically, very pragmatically, you know, there are economic development zones.  There are -- which for folks who perhaps have been to Cleveland -- one of our most famous landmarks is the West Side Market, which is a great farmers' market.  It has proven to be a magnet for microbreweries and a whole revitalization of a very tough part of town.  And they, as a community came together and were one of our successful grant recipients, to build out fiber right through the West 25th corridor, all the way to one of our anchor institutions, which is the public hospital in the city, called MetroHealth.  So, that's just kind of one example.  And it includes, you know, some of the marquis local brands, including, you know, the Great Lakes Brewing Company, which everybody who's listening has to try, at least some time in their life.


Chris:  Well, we will encourage them to.  What were some of the lessons?  I mean, I'm curious.  Working with two dozen cities on these kinds of networks, you know, is there anything that surprised you, in terms of what motivated the cities to get involved with this challenge?


Lev:  Well, I'd start by saying, Chris, that, you know, we're not -- generally, I think, we don't perceive ourselves as kind of a hotbed of high-tech and the next-generation networks.  As a community.  I think we very much embrace our industrial and manufacturing past.  And so, for a lot of the cities, this was kind of -- I've heard it from my other mayoral colleagues or other people in the economic development world across the country who are working with networks.  And so, for a lot of folks, this was the first opportunity to use OUR dollars -- OneCommunity's dollars -- as feed for conversations inside their own communities and city halls and regional planning facilities.  Even, for example, you know, one of the metro parks, which -- we have a fantastic park system -- you know, managed to mobilize conversations, you know, on the future of the Emerald Belt -- that we have here -- even, you know, just because they were sort of saying, you know, we have a chance to work with OneCommunity on this kind of an activity set.

So, to answer your question, I think a lot of what, you know, went on in the convening sessions that we had was -- we actually brought clusters of the prospective participants together.  And after they introduced themselves, and we kind or reviewed kind of the state of the program, most of the many hours that were spent together with them talking to each other about, you know, very local, contextual issues, you know.  How do you folks deal with tax increment funding?  I think, could you imagine using, you know, that source, or public bond financing, or, you know -- So there were lots of creative conversations going on, where the grant itself was, I'm sure, for many folks, a desirable endpoint, but the actual journey, and the conversations, and the engagements between folks, I think, will have much longer-term value, which we hope in our next round of Big Gig Challenge, we'll see, you know, even greater collaboration.  Which, of course, is what the network purports to be able to support.,


Chris:  And speaking, of your next round, one of the things I'm curious about is, if I was the governor of Ohio, and I was saying, Lev, you're doing such a great job, how can we help you?  What would you say to me?


Lev:  Well, I mean, I think that, you know, it would be it would be wonderful if the governor of Ohio -- who has been ENORMOUSLY supportive of next-generation networks -- He is, as a Republican, one of the only Republican governors that I know -- I'll say, singularly, the only Republican governor that I know -- who's actually put his money where is mouth is, when it comes to next-generation networks.  He built out a statewide 100-gig network backbone for public benefit.  And he has also collapsed a lot of government contracts into a public network for general service use.  So Governor Kasich, you know, really gets the IT space.  I would say to him, Governor, it's time to actually do what Connecticut is doing.  It's time to use the state, really, as an opportunity to convene and create truly a statewide plan for deploying next-generation networks.  And using, you know, the convening authority of the state to encourage both incumbent players, the nascent new entrants into the marketplace, and all the other prospects, into, you know, really delivering next-generation networks to the seventh-largest, -populous state in the nation.


Chris:  One of the things I want to make sure we touch on is -- You know, one of the things that I really like about you, Lev, is that being someone located in the Midwest -- as I am as well -- you know, we don't get a lot of respect on the coasts.  People are more likely to laugh about our cities, I think, than take us seriously.  But you -- you've developed some real pride in the Cleveland area.  And so, I'm curious, as someone who's given this a lot of thought and cares deeply about it, what can a city like Cleveland do, given its very real fiscal worries and things like that, to make sure that it's having the connectivity that it needs?


Lev:  Yeah.  I mean, I have thought -- written, spoken, and, you know, every day, I spend time talking and working with the community to try to move from a deficit-oriented view of the world to, I would call it, you know, an asset or surplus view, taking advantage of all the assets that we have.  And, in particular, you know, where we're at right now, we -- and I just had a posting that was put in the business newspaper, which is Crain's Cleveland, you know, on strategy for the new county government here, to specifically take a look at the role of the leverageable assets that they have, to advance next-generation broadband and open data -- which, in my mind, are actually two very important and interrelated activities, especially for county government.

In the cities context, interestingly enough, Cleveland has one of the largest city-owned public utilities, Cleveland Public Power.  And I have been working to both educate myself and to help educate folks both in the banking community and in city utilities on the opportunity to, again, follow really important precedents that have been set down across the country and -- perhaps most notably in terms of headlines -- by Chattanooga.  But, obviously, there are many, many, many others -- communities that are leveraging their public utilities.  But, you know, a city the size of Cleveland -- for, you know that scale -- really gives a real need to think much -- a very large challenge, in terms of the tens of millions of dollars that will be required to deploy next-generation networks.  And the city has huge assets, like Cleveland Public Power pole rights, you know, a very skilled labor force of folks, who -- you know, who know how to work the poles.  And I would sort of say, also, a really important Midwest work ethic, of "can-do."  And, you know, I think it's slow-moving, but, you know, with a new county government, and with, you know, continued support, the city of Cleveland, and its economic development team, and the mayor's office have been supportive.  But, as everyone who will be listening -- and I know, Chris, you know -- you know, city mayors have, you know, 101, you know, priority-ones they have to attend to.  And Cleveland -- you know, truth be told, you know, the Department of Justice findings, and the challenges we've had in our public safety community, you know, have consumed large cycles of time.  And, you know, we're just going to have to wait.  Hopefully, tonight, as we speak, President Obama will hopefully help to elevate our vistas and, hopefully, the vistas of our mayors, to look over the hill, as to, you know, the art of the possible, and hopefully encourage the cities to start think about ways that they can leverage their assets.


Chris:  I think that makes sense.  And it's -- they're words of wisdom people should heed.  The history of Cleveland -- for people who aren't aware -- Mayor Tom Johnson, who, I believe, is responsible for that public utility, you know, there's a great history back there.  And I think that if he was with us today, he would certainly be moving ahead in this direction, and recognizing that the city has to solve its own problem locally.

So, thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us something about OneCommunity.  And I would like to have you on longer, but I know that we promised not to take your whole day up.  So, thank you.


Lev:  Thanks, Chris, for your interest, and, actually -- as we shared when we were off-air -- I also want to say, thanks for everything that you and your organization do.


Lisa:  We have several stories about OneCommunity on .  Be sure to check them out.  Send us your ideas for the show.  E-mail us at .  Follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets .

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We want to thank Persson for the song "Blues walk," licensed through Creative Commons.  And thank you for listening.