Ashland, Oregon has long been a trailblazer in terms of meeting community demand for faster, more affordable broadband access.
The city-owned network has also had a bumpy road—at times being branded as an example of municipal broadband failure. But the network continues to grow as it faces down an urgently-needed pivot toward a fiber-based future.
Despite the current economic healthiness of the network and the clear benefits it’s brought to the community over the last 20 years, local officials are talking about divesting instead of making the financial commitment to continue the investment the city has already made.
The community-owned Ashland Fiber Network (AFN) was first developed in the late 1990s by locals angry at the high prices and historically terrible customer service by the local cable company. Like so many community broadband alternatives, it was a network built from grassroots frustration at consolidated market failure.
Benefits of the community networks were on stark display during the telecommuting and home education boom of the Covid-19 crisis, when the city announced it would be providing free 30 Mbps broadband to all city residents without access to the Internet.
AFN is an open access network, meaning that numerous companies are allowed shared access to the core city network, delivering a variety of broadband, phone, and TV services. As a result, the network’s no-contract broadband pricing tends to be simpler and less expensive than options found in cities dominated by one or two private sector telecom monopolies.
One central benefit of the network remains that it forced regional incumbent Charter to more seriously compete on price. As with other, similar projects, the network has also proven more responsive to the citizens it serves.
The Best Laid Plans...
While AFN was a pioneering effort that embraced numerous disruptive ideas in its quest to disrupt the nation’s monopolies, some early managerial missteps, combined with an early decision to embrace the money pit that is cable television, resulted in a rocky start.
The Ashland Fiber network is not technically a full fiber network, as its underlying deployment technology has long been HFC coaxial connectivity (aka cable). That means AFN suffers from both lower reliability and slower speeds than you’d see with modern fiber networks (particularly on the upstream side of the equation).
AFN officials admit problems began when it got caught in a cable TV pricing arms race with Time Warner Cable, which could easily lock locals into long term contracts for fat cable channel bundles at prices AFN simply couldn’t match. In the early aughts, Time Warner Cable, acquired in 2015 by Charter Communications, could more easily eat escalating programming costs, offering full cable TV bundles in Ashland for as low as $35 a month.
But things have changed dramatically with the rise of streaming video alternatives. In the years since, small cable providers of all stripes have simply backed out of the unsustainable cable TV business entirely. Some providers, like Ashland Home Net, still provide TV service over the AFN, though Charter has since pulled back from many of its early, aggressive promotions.
The AFN’s decision to offer a hybrid open access network for broadband and TV alike allowed it to stop its money-losing retail TV ambitions, leasing its cable TV headend to one of its partner ISPs, which then paid a percentage of its gross TV revenues back to AFN. While most city-wide networks pay for themselves without using taxpayer dollars, Ashland did have a period when the network wasn’t making enough money and taxpayers had to cover the shortfall.
AFN senior network engineer Chad Sobotka told ILSR things began to turn around by 2014, courtesy of several capital improvement projects including cable plant upgrades and new edge routers, which he says decreased the city’s cost per megabit by 99.82%. A new operations manager and marketing campaign in 2017 helped boost subscriber totals dramatically.
“I would definitely classify AFN as a success,” Sobotka said. “In government we don’t use the p word—profit. Instead, I tell people that we exceed our yearly ending fund balance requirements. We also contribute over a million dollars a year back to the city. About half goes to the general fund and half goes to pay our portion of the debt. It is important to note that the operating expenses come out of our budget, so we aren’t a financial burden to the city.”
Despite its shaky start, AFN was monumentally groundbreaking, inspiring the creation of other municipal broadband operations scattered around Oregon, including Monmouth, Oregon’s Monmouth Independence Network, or MINET, in 2004.
But unlike MINET, which embraced future-proof fiber technology, AFN has recently struggled with reliability and capacity constraints, much like the coaxial-based cable giants it was built to compete with. While a full fiber network was impractical during AFN’s creation in 1998, pivoting to fiber in 2022 has become a necessity to keep pace with market demand.
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argue that fiber not only is generally more reliable with lower maintenance costs, it’s easier to systematically upgrade to new standards, providing the bandwidth needed for the Zoom-teleconferencing and 4K gaming era. The group advocates that any new, publicly-subsidized network builds deliver last mile fiber.
Facing a Fiber Upgrade
AFN officials acknowledged the urgent need to migrate to a full fiber network as early as 2007, and Sobotka says he’s been pushing the city to upgrade its coaxial network to fiber for much of the last decade. Today, subscribers can get either 60 Mbps or 120 Mbps service on the download side, for $55 or $65 per month.
Sobotka drafted the first GPON upgrade proposal for AFN in early 2014, and in 2018 wrote a more detailed proposal requesting $125,000 for a GPON pilot project. AFN also purchased its first Adtran TA5000 in 2018, and has started connecting some select local housing developments to fiber as it prepares for a broader upgrade.
But Sobotka has yet to receive the up to $10 million he’ll need to fully upgrade the network.
“The delay for widespread deployment is funding,” he said. “I believe this is the perfect time to deploy GPONs. We have an excellent team of field techs, the debt will be retired soon, our cable plant is starting to show its age, and we have demand for higher speed services.”
The city—which will pay off the debt from the initial network build by 2024—recently hired a consultant to help it determine the best path forward. But a decision could take as long as a year, and when speaking recently to Jefferson Public Radio, Ashland Mayor Julie Atkin expressed concern about the added costs.
“When you borrow money, as you know, even if it’s good money, and even if it’s at a good interest rate, it still compounds,” she said. “That’s one of the challenges we have. Part of working with a partnership is sort of getting out from under that.”
When approached for comment, Ashland Mayor Julie Akins directed us to the Ashland City Manager, who did not respond to questions about the network’s future. Further clarity regarding Mayor Akins view about borrowed funding would have been helpful, as it strains credulity that officials would imply there is no such thing as a good loan with acceptable terms and rates.
To manage the costs, the Ashland city council is weighing the idea of offloading a portion of its stake in AFN to create a public-private partnership (P3). Though as ILSR recently documented in locations like Lakeland, Florida, such P3s can come with their own challenges, especially if the underlying ambitions of the municipality and the private operator don’t entirely align.
This potential loss of autonomy is clearly on the mind of Ashland City Counselmember Tonya Graham.
“That’s one of the beauties of AFN, is that we control it for the benefit of the Ashland community,” she told the outlet. “That means that when something happens like the pandemic, we were able to say, we’re going to make sure that every student who needs Internet access has it, whether they can pay for it or not.”
While he said he wasn’t opposed to shifting toward a P3, Sobotka also expressed some reservations about the model.
“Because we are owned by the City, we are also transparent about our operations,” he said. “Citizens can complain—or give praise—to elected officials and city hall and they know it will not fall on deaf ears. All of our rates are approved by the city council. Those are two benefits that might be lost with a P3 agreement.”
In the interim, city leaders tell ILSR they’re still weighing their options.
“Several months ago, the Ashland City Council directed staff to issue an RFP for professional assistance understanding our options for how to move our AFN system forward,” Councilmember Graham said when reached for comment. “Due to staffing shortages, that RFP has not yet been issued, but we are hopeful that it will be soon.”
Doing nothing at all risks placing AFN behind the eight ball, with dated broadband speeds and aging cable-based infrastructure. And making the wrong choice—such as a P3 with a private company averse to uniform broadband deployment—risks undermining many of the benefits of the decades-old project.
As AFN has ably demonstrated, community broadband isn’t a panacea. It’s much like any other business model, requiring both a solid foundational plan and practical leadership capable of both foresight and adaptation. Without solid strategic planning, cities can find themselves years from now facing entirely new challenges that good intentions alone simply can’t fix.
Header image of Welcome to Ashland sign courtesy of Flickr user Jeff Hitchcock, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Inline image of fiber technician courtesy of Flickr user MTA Construction & Development, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Inline image of public private partnership courtesy of Center for Social Research & Development, no rights reserved.