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West Plains Builds Network to Preserve Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 244
West Plains is one of the many population centers of rural regions that have been left behind by big cable and telephone companies. Located in the scenic Ozarks of southern Missouri, they are taking their digital future into their own hands with a modest fiber-optic investment.
City Administrator Tom Stehn strolls by our podcast this week to discuss what they are doing and why with a municipal fiber network that will connect anchor institutions and local businesses with high-quality Internet access.
We discuss the need, how they are financing it, and why the state legislature should not enact new barriers to local solutions. The community has already been placing conduit as part of a larger undergrounding effort, which will help them to expand the network over time.
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Thanks to Break the Bans for the music. The song is Escape and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Tom Stehn: Businesses look to expand, move to other locations. There's usually five questions they ask, and one of them is always what kind of broadband do you have?
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. West Plains, Missouri, located in the south central part of the state, is situated in the Ozarks, and known for its beautiful terrain, forests, and vistas. Despite attracting outdoor enthusiasts, the community has suffered some economic losses in recent years and is taking steps to boost economic development. Recently the city began offering high quality connectivity to local businesses. Tom Stehn, City Administrator, talks to Christopher this week about the city's foray into municipal Internet infrastructure. Tom describes how the city's plan to update municipal services led them to discover that local businesses also wanted better connectivity. He describes the city's project, their plan, and how they're starting out slowly to address any challenges they encounter along the way.
Christopher Mitchell: Hey everyone. I just wanted to thank you for listening and helping out to create a stronger Internet ecosystem, making sure everyone has high quality access. Please tell your friends, tell others who might be interested, about this show. If you have a chance to rate us on iTunes, please do. Several people already have. We really appreciate all of the comments, and we really appreciate you taking the time to listen to us.
Lisa Gonzalez: Now here's Tom Stehn, City Administrator, of West Plains, Missouri, talking with Christopher about the community's municipal fiber project.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm talking with Tom Stehn, the City Administrator of West Plains in Missouri. Welcome to the show.
Tom Stehn: Thank you, glad to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: I've been following a little bit from afar what's happening in West Plains. Actually we've been doing a lot of interviews with folks all over Missouri, so I'm pretty excited to hear more about what you're doing in your corner of the state. Let's start off by discussing a little bit about West Plains is. Can you give a sense for people who haven't been through it?
Tom Stehn: Chris, West Plains is located in the heart of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. We have a population of over 12,000 people. Any given day, we're probably about 17,000 to 18,000. West Plains is home to a two year college, MSU, Missouri State University, West Plains, a 115 bed hospital, called Ozark Medical Center, and has been recognized on three separate occasions as being one of the best small towns to live in America by National Publications. We also have been recognized by a publication called Spark Asset as being one of the top eight places in Missouri to retire.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. It sounds like you're a bit of a regional center and a fairly rural part of the Ozarks there.
Tom Stehn: Yes we are. We're kind of the regional hub for south central Missouri. The closest communities to us, major communities, are about 100 miles away, and that's Springfield, Missouri to the northwest, and Poplar Bluff to the east.
Christopher Mitchell: If there's one thing I know about towns that are loved by nature lovers and that are off in the middle of, what we might say, nowhere, is that you often have problems with high quality Internet access. Is that one of the issues that you've been dealing with there?
Tom Stehn: Yes, it has. Chris, it all kind of started back in basically February of 2015. We were having a work session with council. As a small community, just looking at the city of West Plains individually, we were kind of behind the curve on some technology issues for our own staff. What we recommended to council was we would like to proceed and connect all city buildings to a fiber Internet, which therefore could help us with our police and fire, intranet, SharePoint or Cloud, and some other things. The question asked was, "Would you be able to serve businesses possibly if that comes to play?" We answered, "Yes." The media was there, and that kind of started the process. From February to about September, the community was letting our city council know that they did not feel they had reliable and affordable Internet. Basically around September, the council asked us to form a committee, which we formed a broadband study group. It was about 20-25 people, businesses, and chamber, Ozark Medical Center, and other people throughout the community, to look at this broadband issue. Basically in December, we made a presentation to city council that we needed to proceed. We made three recommendations. One was we would like to proceed with our fiber loop. It's a 14 mile loop around town and connect businesses as they show interest. Then, basically this year we would do some type of pilot to connect more businesses and possibly look at residential. The third would be at the end of this year we would give an update on what's working, what's not, costs, and where do we need to go from there.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that sometimes pops up when we're talking about these kinds of things as you're describing what you went through, is whether or not you, as a city administrator, really are thinking this is something you want to do. I'm just curious, as you're going through that process that you just described, is this something that you were excited to do, or is this something that you wish you didn't have to get into?
Tom Stehn: Chris, that is a loaded question, and a very good one. Unfortunately, at the City of West Plains, in the last two years, we've lost over 500 jobs. This fiber or broadband is a huge issues for companies looking towards the future. From that avenue, I was very excited about it. Of course, as a city administrator, I'm concerned, because if we would go completely to all businesses and residents, we're looking at a high price tag that is estimated at $15 million. What scares me the most is the customer service aspect of this. If we're going to do this, I want to make sure the city is successful and that we can respond at serving the customer service. That's the piece that really scares me the most.
Christopher Mitchell: That makes a lot of sense, and we hear that from a lot of communities, frankly. You described your plan. You're going to be serving, what we typically call the anchor institutions, your schools, presumably the police, and that sort of thing. You're going to make it available to businesses. Are you running this out of City Hall? Do you already have an electric utility or something? Who's going to manage it for the city?
Tom Stehn: Right now, basically we are running out of City Hall, and we're kind of doing it through our utility department. Last February, council did agree to add fiber as a utility for the city of West Plains, but we're really managing it right now out of our electric department and our IT department. That is one of the things that we're looking at, as we take some next steps, and that's one of the reasons for the pilots this year is, really getting a better gauge on what type of costs, what type of resources we need, equipment all that. We're still very much in the learning stage here. Chris, I'd like to clarify something. What we're talking about right now is dedicated Internet, which is available upon request. It's 25 Mbps up, 25 Mbps down, so it's a committed source where it doesn't fluctuate based on the number of customers. That's what we're offering to businesses right now.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I think for people who aren't as familiar, that's going to be a higher quality service than they're used to getting, maybe if you get 25 Megabit from a telephone or a cable company. When it's committed, it's always there.
Tom Stehn: Yes, it is. That is correct.
Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about how you're financing the network. How are you paying for this first approach that you're laying out with the ring?
Tom Stehn: Well, right now, Chris, we're kind of funding it through the utilities department. The costs have been a little over $260,000. Our estimate right now if we would fund the whole thing is $15 million, which would include the residential and commercial service. We probably would be looking at some type of bonding in some fashion, either fully or partially. This would have to go to the vote of the people for the City of West Plains, but those are things we're still trying to work out as we test pilot our system.
Christopher Mitchell: When you say, it's funded through the utilities, is that a loan within the utilities system then?
Tom Stehn: In a way, yes. We're kind of borrowing from the electric department, and then as we add customers and all that, we're going to try to pay that back as much as we can.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's something that we've often seen. It's nice to be able to do those loans internally. In fact, in our experience, when you actually get into the accounting, it actually works out very well for the electric department to fund it that way.
Tom Stehn: Basically what we're also trying to do is, as we upgrade our lines or improve our lines with taking it from overhead to underground, we'll be putting electric lines in the underground, we'll be adding another conduit for fiber. So pretty much where we're doing those changes or where we're running electric to new services, we're bringing fiber along with it. If you have the potential of receiving our electric from our utilities, then you'll have the potential of fiber as well. We're saving on some of the labor costs there by doing it together.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I just have to put in a big plug. Any time I hear of utilities going underground, I'm always thrilled, because I think, particularly if you're in a very scenic area, getting rid of those wires overhead really makes everyone's day better, even if they don't realize it, I think.
Tom Stehn: Yes, we just had a big project last year. What we consider, we call our Southern Hills Shopping District, that's where pretty much our commercial area is with Walmart and other shops. We work with them and basically put all the services underground in front of that. Aesthetically it makes it look so much better.
Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely, so what are some of the results of the fiber project thus far, or I guess to some extent, what are you forecasting as well?
Tom Stehn: Chris, right now we have put out a survey to all our businesses just trying to better understand their concerns and gauge interest. Unfortunately we have not received back all those surveys, so we don't have the data where I can communicate with you on that. We are advertising that we have a dedicated Internet, 25 Mbps, 50 Mbps, and 100 Mbps, trying to get interest on what businesses would be interested in that. We will be trying to go forth, probably late summer, with a pilot of hooking up so many businesses and residents, where basically about a 90 day pilot, where we can really evaluate our system. Other things, later this year, first of next year, we can present to council our findings and kind of finalize our direction even more. Right now, Chris, we're still very much in the learning stage and trying to just better understand the concerns of our customers and their interests, but also trying to better understand what equipment, technology, and all that, that we need to use to move this forward, as well as resources.
Christopher Mitchell: I guess I'm curious, Tom, as there's a debate right now happening in Missouri at the state legislature over whether or not there should be more barriers for cities, is there anything you think the legislature doesn't really understand in terms of what your position is as a small community, maybe outside of the major cities in Missouri?
Tom Stehn: We have Representative Shawn Rhoads and Senator Mike Cunningham. There is a bill filed this year called Senate Bill 186, and if I recall Chris, this is the fourth year for a bill similar to this being filed.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes.
Tom Stehn: We've had several communications with our representative and state senator indicating that we really need that flexibility, especially for a small rural community, such as ourselves, because basically it could be our survival for economic development. We need to have that flexibility. I believe our rep and state senator totally understand our position and support our position.
Christopher Mitchell: Good. I'm glad to hear that. I know that there's been a split. That's why it keeps coming up is because the majority of the legislature recognizes that communities should be making these decisions locally, and I think nobody at the state level has a sense of what every community needs.
Tom Stehn: I feel with our state rep and senator, they have very much been involved in discussions with us and talking to us on our feelings. They totally understand that and realize the situation the City of West Plains has been in with losing so many jobs. They attended some of our meetings with the broadband study group. They're hearing from our citizens as well, and pretty much, they both said they would oppose any bill that comes through limiting our flexibility on this.
Christopher Mitchell: I'm very glad to hear that. Is there anything you'd like to wrap up with as we close up the interview?
Tom Stehn: West Plains is a great community. We have great citizens, and they're very progressive. We just want to do what's best for this community and move it forward and hopefully grow in the meantime.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that you're really smart to be examining what you can be doing and doing the pilot project, because it looks a lot of the rural electric cooperatives in both Arkansas and in Missouri, are seriously moving ahead. It's one thing if you have bad Internet access, and none of your neighbors have better Internet access, but if Missouri's going to be one of the first states that has really great rural Internet access across it, you need to make sure that you're there in the game at the same time.
Tom Stehn: We agree. Our citizens are driving us, and so we're responding to their needs. The other thing is as businesses look to expand, move to other locations, there's usually five questions they ask. One of them is always what kind of broadband do you have. We just want to make sure that we can provide that service, so they really consider the City of West Plains as they grow.
Christopher Mitchell: Great, thank you so much for your time today, Tom.
Tom Stehn: Thank you, Chris.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Tom Stehn, City Administrator from West Plains, Missouri, where the city just began offering high quality connectivity to local businesses. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcasts@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at islr.org. Thank you to Break the Bands for the song, Escape, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.