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Colorado may have been the epicenter of local authority disruption this election cycle but two Iowa elections were also worth exploring.
Decorah Chooses Muni Authority
In Decorah, the community of 8,000 received awards for its innovative use of the city's dark fiber network, MetroNet. A community led effort, Decorah FastFiber, convinced community leaders to ask voters if they want to expand the use of that fiber. Voters decided 1,289 to 95 to give the city the authority to establish a municipal telecommunications network.
Decorah's ballot question specifically asked if that authority should extend to video, voice, telephone, data, and all other forms of telecommunications and cable communications, reports the News. A second ballot question, which passed with similar results, asked voters to authorize the city to establish a Board of Trustees for the utility.
Vinton Trusts Its Electric Utility
Vinton, home to approximately 5,200 people, voted overwhelmingly to form a telecommunication utility. The community, located northwest of Cedar Rapids, voted 792 to 104 to put the community's municipal electric utility in charge of the initiative. This matter had been voted on twice previously - in both cases the community had voted against the proposition.
A comparatively large number of communities in Iowa have invested in their own Internet networks but Mediacom and other providers like CenturyLink have fought hard to prevent municipalities from passing the necessary referendum to build a network. This year, we had no reports of opposition from incumbent operators, a remarkable change that frankly leaves us puzzled but hopeful nonetheless.
Congrats to both Decorah and Vinton for reclaiming digital self-determiniation. We don't know if either one has immediate plans to build a network or what model they may use but now they have full authority to explore all options.
The "constant drumbeat" of complaints about poor connectivity pounding from Colorado communities ended with a climactic crash at the polls on Tuesday. Referenda in 47 communities* - 27 cities and towns; 20 counties - all passed overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority.
The landslide victory was no surprise. Last year, nine communities asked voters the same issue of whether or not they wanted the ability to make local telecommunications decisions. That right was taken away 10 years ago by SB 152. Two other communities took up the question earlier this year with 75 percent and 92 percent of voters supporting local telecommunications authority.
A few larger communities, such as Boulder, Montrose, and Centennial, presented the issue to the voters and reclaimed local authority in prior years. This year, most of the voting took place in smaller, rural communities where incumbents have little incentive to invest in network upgrades.
This year, results were similar as the majority of voters supported local measures with over 70 percent of ballots cast. In Durango, over 90 percent of voters chose to opt out of restrictive SB 152; Telluride voters affirmed their commitment to local authority when over 93 percent of votes supported measure 2B. Many communities showed support in the mid- and upper- 80th percentile.
Schools Win, Too
One year ago, a wave started in Colorado as voters in a handful of communities chose to reclaim the local telecommunications authority revoked by CenturyLink lobbyists in 2005. This year, the wave is even bigger.
Colorado Communities Want the Choice
As 2015 election day approaches, voters in 43 Colorado communities are on track to keep the momentum going across the state. A total of 17 counties, 26 towns, and at least 3 school districts are taking the issue to voters, reports the Colorado Municipal League. Referendums to opt out of restrictive SB 152 will take place across the state, much to the chagrin of big ISPs who spent millions in lobbying dollars to get the bill passed.
Local Support: “Yes” in Steamboat Springs
In Rio Blanco County, you’re almost more likely to find a dinosaur fossil than a human being. This rural county in northwestern Colorado has about two people for every square mile, but its sparse population is not stopping it from advancing an ambitious open-access broadband initiative.
More than a year into the rollout of the network plan, Rio Blanco County (RBC) has already succeeded in soliciting $2 million in matched funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), contracted a network operator, and secured easements (land-use rights) from the county’s two largest municipalities to begin construction on the FTTx network. The bulk of the funding will come for the County budgeting for the infrastructure.
The network will initially touch every block and ultimately be expanded to deliver a fiber connection to each premise in the two towns.
Rio Blanco’s network will be a four-tier open access arrangement. The county will own the infrastructure - from the data center to the optical network terminal (ONT) within the home and everything in between. A private company, Colorado.Fiber.Community, will operate the network. And a combination of independent middle-mile Internet service providers and last-mile value-added resalers will offer services directly to residents.
For Rio Blanco County IT Director, Blake Mobley, this arrangement is what makes Rio Blanco County’s initiative both unique and feasible. Mobley gave a presentation at the MountainConnect conference in Vail, Colorado, where he spoke about the challenges and the early successes of Rio Blanco County community broadband network. Because the network is open-access, he said, the county can focus on what it does best - laying the groundwork and setting larger policy objectives, not taking the mantle of Internet service provider:
We look at this just like a county building county roads. You build those roads out. You as a county aren’t anticipating a large return on that investment from those roads up front. It’s the utilization of those roads that builds an economy that’s going to be to your benefit.
After searching for a suitable partner, the Village of Bald Head Island in North Carolina has reopened its RFP for a gigabit fiber network. Apparently, the community received four responses but no proposal provided the level of detail they require.
In order to give respondents another opportunity and to offer new candidates a chance, Bald Head Island leaders chose to release the RFP a second time with additional questions and a responsibility matrix. No response will be considered without answers to these new appendices. All three documents are available on the Village website.
The Village of Bald Head Island is home to approximately 160 year-round residents, but numbers swell to 7,000 during the busy tourist season. Vacation homes and part-time residents bring the potential fiber service area up to 2,500 but incumbents AT&T and Tele-Media don't see the value of bringing fiber to such an environment. The StarNews Online described community leadership's frustration and decision to move forward:
"Broadband is not available on Bald Head Island," said Calvin Peck, the village's manager. "It just isn't, and none of the current providers have plans to invest the money to make it available, so the village council feels it's an important enough issue to spend village resources to make it happen."
While Bald Head Island looks for a partner it also plans to ask voters if they agree to pursue better broadband. Voters will decide on November 3rd if they support a $10 million bond issue. Community leaders will focus on revenue bonds, one of the most common ways to finance municipal network deployment. This mechanism shifts repayment to those who use the network, reducing financial risk to the community at large.
Clearly community leaders understand that the time to act is now:
Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.
According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.
Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:
A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.
Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:
Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.
In June, 2005, voters in Lafayette chose to invest in a municipal FTTH network, now known as the only municipal gigabit network in the state, LUS Fiber. To celebrate the milestone, City-Parish President Joey Durel has declared July LUS Fiber Month. Current customers' Internet access has been boosted up to gigabit speed at no extra charge for July and the city will celebrate with a series of events this week. The entire community is invited to participate onsite but most of the events will be broadcast live so if you are not there, you can be part of the celebration. See the list of events below.
In the past ten years, the network has attracted thousands of new jobs, created better educational opportunities, and helped bridge the digital divide. Just last fall, three high tech companies committed to bringing approximately 1,300 new jobs to the "Silicon Bayou." The presence of the network, the University of Louisiana's local top-ranked computer science program, and its quality grads were two more key factors for choosing Lafayette. In April, Standard & Poor gave LUS Fiber an A+ bond rating based on the system's "sustained strong fixed charge coverage and liquidity levels, and the communication system’s improved cash flow."
The July issue of the local Independent tells the story of the network. According to Terry Huval, Director of LUS Fiber, the self-reliant streak has always been part of Lafayette's culture - in 1996 the city celebrated its 100th year vote to create its own electric and water system. The Independent article describes that culture as it permeated the vision shared by City-Parish President Joey Durel and Huval.
In June, Boulder released a Request for Proposals (RFP) as it seeks a consultant to conduct a broadband feasibility study. A PDF of the RFP is available online.
The city currently has 179 miles of fiber in place serving 60 city facilities; there is an additional 36 miles of empty conduit. This network interfaces with the Boulder Valley School District's network within the city and in other areas of Boulder County. It also connects to Longmont's network and to a colocation facility in Denver.
The city is also home to BRAN - the Boulder Research and Administration Network. The city, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Department of Commerce Laboratories share ownership of the BRAN fiber network which interconnects their facilities.
Last fall, Boulder joined a number of other Colorado communities whose voters chose to reclaim local telecommunications authority, revoked in 2005 under Colorado State Bill 152.
The city established a Broadband Working Group earlier this year to investigate ways to bring better connectivity to Boulder. They created a draft vision, included in the RFP:
Draft Vision: Gigabit Broadband to Boulder Homes and Businesses
(May 21, 2015)
Our vision is to provide a world-class community telecommunications infrastructure to Boulder for the 21st century and beyond, facilitated by new access to the public’s local telecommunications assets. We acknowledge that broadband is a critical service for quality of life, as is the case with roads, water, sewer, and electricity. Every home, business, non-profit organization, government entity, and place of education should have the opportunity to connect affordably, easily, and securely. Boulder’s broadband services will be shaped by the values of the community.
The community of Lafayette voted 10 years ago this month to create its own municipal FTTH network. In doing so, they created a standard that other communities have tried to emulate. On Tuesday, July 14th at 1:30 p.m. CDT, City-Parish President Joey Durel and LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval will host a Reddit Ask Me Anything about the initiative.
This is a great opportunity to learn about the community's vision, mobilization efforts, and the way it overcame challenges to create a highly successful municipal fiber network.
Prepare your questions and join the conversation at http://reddit.com/r/iama
Here is your video invitation from Terry Huval:
Islesboro residents voted on May 30th to move forward with their municipal network plan. According to the Islesboro Press Herald, approximately 75 percent of voters attending the annual town meeting approved a motion to spend $206,830 on an engineering study and contractor search. Approximately 200 residents attended.
As we reported in March, the community has been working since 2012 on a plan for a fiber network to improve connectivity for businesses and the almost 600 residents on the island. The infrastructure will belong to the Town of Isleboro; GWI will offer services via the network. The entire project estimate is $2.5 - $3 million to be funded with a municipal bond.
Many of the island's residents now obtain Internet access via DSL from Fairpoint, which has been described as spotty and unreliable, for $20 - $70 per month. GWI already operates on the island, offering wireless service.
This is the first in a several step approval process:
Town officials plan to hold a second public vote in the fall on 20-year municipal bond for up to $3 million that would fund the network’s construction, [Selectman Arch Gillies] said.
Completion is scheduled for the end of 2016.
“We’re a community intent on keeping up with the world, and maybe getting ahead of the world,” [Gilles] said.