Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Is a major metropolitan Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network on the horizon for one of the Sunshine State’s most populous cities?
Longtime Jacksonville, Florida (pop. 890,000) resident Eric Geller is spearheading a citizen-led effort to rally residents and officials around a vision that would catapult Jacksonville into the fiber-connected frontier of Internet access and reinvigorate the economy of a city that was once known as the "Bold New City of the South."
As an IT consultant and former public policy research analyst, from Geller’s tech-savvy perspective the key is for the city’s utility company, JEA, to move beyond providing electricity, water, and sewer services and expand into building the necessary Internet infrastructure that would give all Jacksonville residents access to reliable and truly high-speed connectivity.
“Nationally, it’s been well accepted that we are at a point where the Internet is absolutely mandatory. Every business and home has to be connected,” Geller said in a recent interview with WJCT Radio, noting how the pandemic has made it clear that universal access to broadband is nearly as important as running water and electricity.
JEA’s Dark Fiber Infrastructure
If it’s a pipe dream, it’s one with light at the end — if Jacksonville residents can first see and appreciate all the dark. That is to say, the city’s existing dark fiber network, or the unused capacity of the fiber optic cables JEA has already deployed and how it could be leveraged and lit up to serve as the backbone for a citywide FTTH network.
JEA already leases routes to businesses along its 500-mile fiber optic network spanning the Jacksonville metropolitan area, which includes all of Duval Country and parts of St. Johns and Nassau Counties. In fact, with all that underground (and overhead) fiber already in place, Jacksonville can boast of having “more fiber in the ground than any city in Northeast Florida,” much of it passing through vital commercial and industrial parts of the city.
But if you want to reel in broadband hungry subscribers living and working in nearby Morgan or Lawrence County, the Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corporation (JWEMC) is hoping fiber optic lines and a free Amazon Fire TV Stick will lure subscribers to sign up for the electric co-op’s new gig speed Internet service, FlashFiber.
Trinity, just a few miles away from Wheeler Lake, is where JWEMC began hanging fiber optic cables before launching construction of a new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network weeks before the start of the new year. The $95 million project is expected to take five years to finish, though some subscribers may get service as early as this year despite construction delays caused by the COVID crisis with manufacturers of network components temporarily shut down under quarantine protocols.
Once the total buildout is complete, the network will cover JWEMC’s service area in both counties where the utility has been delivering electricity for the past 83 years. When it’s all said and done, the fourth largest electric co-op in “The Heart of Dixie,” will have deployed 15.8 million feet of fiber (nearly 3,000 miles), making the network accessible to all of the utility’s 43,000 members.
For communities across the country considering whether to invest in building a municipal broadband network, a new study published last week on the economic value of the EPB fiber network in America’s first “gig city” is a must-read.
The independent study, conducted by Bento Lobo, Ph.D., head of the Department of Finance and Economics at the Rollins College of Business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, found that the celebrated city-owned fiber network has delivered Chattanoogans a $2.69 billion return on investment in its first decade.
In 2010, EPB Fiber, a division of Chattanooga’s city-owned electric and telecommunications utility formerly known as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, became the first city in the United States to build a Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network offering up to 1 Gig upload and download speeds. In 2015, EPB began offering up to 10 Gig speeds.
It cost approximately $220 million to build the network, however, “the true economic value of the fiber optic infrastructure for EPB’s customers is much greater than the cost of installing and maintaining the infrastructure,” Lobo said. “Our latest research findings show that Chattanooga’s fiber optic network provides additional value because it provides high speeds, with symmetrical uploads and downloads, and a high degree of network responsiveness which are necessary for the smart grid and other cutting-edge business, educational and research applications.”
Among the study’s key findings:
Conway is right in the middle – in the middle of Arkansas with its utility company, Conway Corp, in the middle of beefing up its broadband network.
In this city of 66,000 – home to the information technology company Acxiom Corporation and three colleges – residents and businesses have long relied on Conway Corp for more than just electricity since the utility first launched its cable and Internet service in 1997.
Conway Corp, which has been Conway’s electric utility for the past 90 years, has a unique relationship with the city’s government. “We are different in the way we are set up as compared to many other municipal networks. We are set up as a non-profit. We lease the network and operate it on behalf of the city,” explained Conway Corp Chief Marketing Officer Crystal Kemp.
At the heart of the utility’s network management has been the on-going work to stay ahead of the curve.
Prepared for the Pandemic
“When we launched Internet services in 1997, upstream capacity wasn’t a concern and systems were built with the average homes (and) businesses per geographic area, or node, at 500. Today those numbers are less than 95 per node. That’s been achieved through physical changes in the network and changes in our engineering practices,” Conway Corp’s Chief Technology Officer Jason Hansen told us last week.
Upgrades to the Hybrid-Fiber-Coax (HFC) network began to take shape in 2019 with the deployment of DOCSIS 3.1, allowing Conway Corp to double its downstream capacity. They also began upgrading equipment that paved the way for expanded use of the RF (Radio Frequency) spectrum to boost the network’s bandwidth. As of December 2020, about 50 percent of the upstream upgrade work had been completed with the remainder expected to be finished by the summer of 2021.
In a part of the Prairie State referred to as “Little Egypt,” a small county in southeastern Illinois recently received a big infusion of federal funds to expand its broadband network into neighboring rural counties.
In October of 2020, the USDA announced that the Hamilton County Telephone Cooperative was awarded a $20 million ReConnect grant and a $20 million ReConnect loan to bring broadband to over 19,000 residents, 462 businesses, 347 farms, 16 educational facilities, three post offices and four fire stations in Saline, Williamson, Franklin and White counties.
The $40 million in total Hamilton County received was a portion of the $600 million Congress appropriated to the USDA in 2018 to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. In April of 2020, the USDA announced it had received 172 applications worth $1.57 billion in Round Two ReConnect requests.
The funds awarded to Hamilton County in the fall came on top of the $3.4 million from the state-wide Connect Illinois program and ReConnect funds the co-op received in February of 2020 to build out its Fiber-To-The-Premises (FTTP) network to connect more than 600 homes in the rural county with a population just over 8,000 residents.
Decades of Service
Bar Harbor, Maine (pop. 5,500) has been trying to get a municipal fiber network off (and into) the ground for more than half a decade. If local officials throw weight behind the most recent move, we may see momentum continue to build for faster, more reliable, affordable, and universally available Internet access for government use, commercial development, and maybe, down the road, residents as well.
We last checked in with the town in 2016, when its franchise agreement with Charter had expired and negotiations for a new agreement had stalled. At the time, Bar Harbor was considering a $100,000 engineering study to flesh out the possibility of a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network or a $50,000 study to do so for a government-only network, but at the last minute the town’s Warrant Committee and Council decided not to move ahead on either at the last minute. Since then, the situation has remained more or less in stasis.
But with recent changes, Charter has signaled that it will begin to charge Bar Harbor $45,000 a year for access via – a ten-fold increase over the $4,500/year the town currently pays. With the company refusing to negotiate, on December 15 the Town Council, at the recommendation of the Communication and Technologies Committee (CTC), voted unanimously to place a $750,000 proposal to build their own institutional network onto the 2022 budget draft review. The general public will have the chance to vote on the measure in June.
Locally Owned Infrastructure at a Fraction of the Price
This piece was authored by Jericho Casper from Broadband Breakfast.
The digital divide afflicting the United States has become even more apparent throughout the pandemic, repositioning the issue of universal broadband access to the forefront of many Washington policy agendas, including that of President-elect Joe Biden.
The Biden presidential campaign’s website early on included a plan for rural America that highlighted how the COVID-19 crisis deepened many of the challenges that were already confronting Americans, including “lack of access to health care, unreliable broadband, and the chronic under funding of public schools.”
The plan further states that “Americans everywhere need universal, reliable, affordable, and high-speed Internet access to do their jobs, participate equally in remote school learning and stay connected” and promises to “expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.”
Biden’s Top Four Priorities Convey an Urgent Need for Advanced Infrastructure
Of the challenges facing the incoming administration of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, it seems clear that universal broadband is critical to each of them.
Biden’s campaign website specifically lists universal broadband as a priority in bolstering economic recovery, fighting climate change, and advancing racial economic equity. Universal access to broadband also underscores the fourth top policy initiative listed on the Biden campaign website, battling COVID-19, although the incoming administration fails to link broadband as a precondition for this priority.
As a presidential candidate, Biden called broadband a tool to put Americans to work during a visit to Hermantown, Minnesota.
The campaign’s plan for economic recovery specifically links the country’s financial recovery to mobilizing American work forces in the construction of “modern, sustainable infrastructure” and “sustainable engines of growth,” connecting universal broadband to building a clean energy economy, addressing the climate crisis, and creating millions of “good-paying, union jobs.”
On December 7th, Our Revolution Arlington hosted an event which brought together a diverse group to talk about the impact of the ongoing pandemic on small and independent business owners, and what solutions exist for responding:
With new lockdowns looming and federal support stalled indefinitely, what options do state and local governments have to keep small businesses afloat in the months ahead. In addition, how might we strengthen small business over the long term as part of more inclusive community development strategies?
Among panelists were ILSR’s Kennedy Smith (Senior Researcher, Independent Business initiative) and Christopher Mitchell (Director, Community Broadband Networks initiative). They were joined by Donna Grambrell (President/CEO Appalachian Community Capital), Tony Hernandez (Director, Dudley Neighbors, Inc.), and Marjorie Kelly (Executive Vice President, The Democracy Initiative)
Kennedy talked about a recent ILSR report showing the variety of responses available to communities and states to protect small business and ensure a more equitable outcome for economic recovery. Christopher talked about the variety of ways local ownership of information infrastructure can help small business weather a pandemic, but also set up communities for success in fostering business and commercial districts that attract talent, capital, and residents for the next decade.
The other panelists touched on models for preserving local business ownership through temporary equity actions via “economic preservation funds,” the outsized impact of the pandemic on minority-owned businesses and how to help, and the formation of community land trusts to combat gentrification and land speculation.
Watch the recording below.
Built in 2008 with an eye toward the future and operated with local priorities in mind, Greenlight has a long track record of putting people first. In a new case study, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance explores the wide-ranging community benefits of Greenlight, the city-owned Fiber-to-the-Home network in Wilson, North Carolina.
The case study details how it has been able to quickly adapt and expand service during the pandemic, as well as the host of advantages and overall value brought to the city over the last decade in education, equity, and economic development. For example:
Access for All
- In 2016, Greenlight began a partnership with the Wilson Housing Authority (WHA) to connect hundreds of public housing residents to $10/month low-cost fast Internet access.
- The network targets barriers to service adoption that go beyond cost, including a flexpay system which allows users to prepay for Internet access instead of requiring large deposits or a credit check. It also allows users to load funds into their account for individual days of network access.
- Greenlight has been named as a key factor in Wilson’s economic revitalization.
- Wilson’s fiber infrastructure has helped local businesses succeed and is a factor in the relocation of new companies to the area. In 2019, Wilson was ranked the 10th best small city in the country to start a business.
- In 2016, Greenlight began co-sponsoring the GigEast Exchange Conference. The GigEast Exchange serves as a technology hub, incubator, and networking space for everyone in the community.
Residents in the village of Tupper Lake, New York, will soon enjoy a municipally owned broadband option to get online. With the awarding of a grant by the Northern Border Regional Commission matched by local funds, a hybrid Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and fixed wireless network will bring faster speeds and more reliable service to homes and businesses in the northern part of the Empire State by the middle of next summer.
The village of Tupper Lake (which sits within the boundaries of the town of Tupper Lake) is located in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains not too far from Lake Placid. It’s an overwhelmingly rural area, and a little more than 3,500 people call the village home.