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New Municipal Broadband Networks Skyrocket in Post-Pandemic America As Alternative To Private Monopoly Model
As the new year begins, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) announced today its latest tally of municipal broadband networks which shows a dramatic surge in the number of communities building publicly-owned, locally controlled high-speed Internet infrastructure over the last three years.
Since January 1, 2021, at least 47 new municipal networks have come online with dozens of other projects still in the planning or pre-construction phase, which includes the possibility of building 40 new municipal networks in California alone.
The city of Dublin, Ohio has struck a public private partnership with altafiber (formerly known as Cincinnati Bell) to build a new citywide fiber network city leaders hope will finally deliver the kind of affordable, next-generation broadband access Dublin’s 50,000 residents have long been clamoring for.
In 2022 the city issued a request for proposal (RFP) looking for a partner on a citywide network build. At a June 26 meeting, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to select altafiber from a roster of seven potential applicants.
According to the arrangement, construction of the city network is expected to begin in Spring of 2024, with every premise in Dublin passed by a 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) capable network within three years. A select number of undetermined customers are expected to be brought online sometime in the latter part of next year, officials tell ILSR.
A city press release notes that altafiber will invest $35 million in the fiber network, as well as potentially providing the infrastructure necessary to help the city support either public Wi-Fi initiatives or a City Innovation Center. The city says it will pay about $6 million to bury the necessary fiber infrastructure citywide.
City leaders in Gary, Indiana hope to have people singing a song first sung by the city’s most famous family. But instead of relying on The Jackson 5 to lead a reprisal of “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” the sheet music this time is a plan to “deploy ubiquitous, accessible and affordable high-speed broadband to every home and business within the City.”
Two weeks ago, the city issued a Request for Qualification as it seeks Internet service provider(s) for the city to partner with “to build, operate (and) maintain a government middle mile fiber ring leveraging the City’s ARPA funds and working together to obtain additional State funding to ensure the partner deploys commercial and residential retail broadband.” Bids are due by August 12.
While the city wants to build a fiber intergovernmental network to support the city’s government, the plan calls for a city-wide network “that raises all tides on the residential side. That is essential to Gary’s economic future,” Gary’s Chief Innovation Officer Lloyd Keith explained last week during an information session for potential partners.
The genesis of the proposed project, Keith explained, “came from us looking at a study during the pandemic and the issues we were having with students. We are basically inadequate as far as broadband access is concerned in comparison to other communities. So we looked at how we can go about resolving that situation.”
Despite the presence of AT&T and Comcast, Keith described his city of 67,000 just 30 miles southeast of Chicago as still being “underserved” as was made apparent when the city found numerous census tracts with a staggering number of residents who do not have home broadband service.
That’s why, Keith said, now is the time for Gary to leverage its Rescue Plan funds and the federal BEAD program to finance construction of a network that will cover the entire city.
Since 1972, the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has provided gas, electric, water, and natural gas services to Fort Pierce, Florida and surrounding areas. Now, inspired by efforts in cities like Chattanooga, the utility hopes to leverage that expertise to deliver affordable fiber Internet access to the city’s 45,000 residents as part of a significant expansion of its internal fiber network.
Building on Its I-Net
Since the early 2000s, FPUA has deployed 110 miles of optical fiber via its FPUAnet Communications division. Initially, the project focused on bringing ultra-fast fiber broadband to large businesses, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions.
In 2018, the city decided to expand its footprint to boost the local economy and cement Fort Pierce’s future reputation as a smart city of the future. First by upgrading the company’s existing utility systems (connected to 30,000 existing customer energy meters), then by utilizing that access to drive expanded fiber connectivity to smaller business and residential customers alike.
“We wanted to look at what we can do, and what are the needs in the community,” Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager told me. “We have other local competition…Comcast, AT&T are competitors in the area. But in the realm of symmetrical speeds, no one really offers it.”
Fort Pierce certainly isn’t alone in that regard. Even the notoriously inflated FCC data indicates that most U.S. communities rarely have access to symmetrical speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and faster, and competition at those speeds is largely nonexistent. Addressing this market failure created an obvious business expansion opportunity for FPUANet that would not only bring additional value to its existing utility customers in the form of improved reliability and cost savings, but improve regional connectivity while keeping those dollars local
While it’s been somewhat of a rarity in larger metropolitan areas, the city of Alexandria, Virginia (pop. 158,000) is hoping to bring residents fast, reliable Internet access by building out an institutional network (I-Net) in the state’s seventh largest city.
Construction of the I-Net, which is expected to be completed by February 2025, will connect the city’s schools, public safety buildings and other facilities, and lay the foundation for a city-wide fiber-to-the-home network.
Instead of waiting for Comcast to give residents the service they need, in August the city broke ground on the project that was long in the works. The main aim is to connect government facilities with the hope that the city will lease out the conduit to a private Internet Service Provider (ISP) as a way to incent more broadband competition.
According to the city’s broadband webpage: the “Municipal Fiber project will create potential partnership opportunities to expand consumer choice and increase available speeds for broadband services.” If the city moves forward with a public-private partnership, it could make the municipal network one of the largest in the country.
City officials have created a Request for Proposals (RFP) process, in which they will be looking for ISPs that have a track record of connecting other communities in the state. The winning bidder would then be given a contract to build a fiber network that best serves the public interest, working closely with the city in deploying network infrastructure.
Broadband In the Works
Virginia is one of the 17 states that puts restrictions on municipal networks, mandating that “municipal networks impute private sector costs, pay additional taxes, set excessively high prices, and/or refrain from subsidizing affordable service, in the name of protecting private ‘competition.’” But that hasn’t stopped city officials from finding solutions to the lack of high-speed connectivity in the community.
Decatur, Illinois (pop. 71,000) is moving forward with an Institutional Network (I-Net) expansion that will connect 11 school districts and 3 firehouses to its growing fiber-optic backbone, connecting potential commercial and industry customers along the way.
The city of Decatur has been expanding its fiber network since 2014, when it decided to deploy a backbone network connecting several of its facilities. This most recent expansion will extend the access to Franklin and Parsons schools, Stephen Decatur Middle School, Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools, American Dreamer STEM Academy, Dennis Lab School, Hope Academy, Johns Hill Magnet School and William Harris Learning Academy.
The expansion is the result of a 5-0 city council vote in April approving a $915,000 contract with Bodine Electric to purchase and hang 144 strand fiber-optic cable.
A portion of the funding for the contract will come from a $800,000 grant from the Connect Illinois grant program, an initiative aimed at expanding broadband access. The program launched in 2019 with $420-million investment in broadband infrastructure. The first round of grants totaled $50 million with a combined $9.25 million going to monopoly ISPs CenturyLink, MediaCom, Spectrum, and Comcast and the rest going to local ISPs and city and county governments.
The remaining $115,000 allocated in the contract will come from the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan fund.
While the city will fund the expansion of the backbone to pass by the schools and connect the firehouses, Decatur Public Schools (DPS) will also contribute $600,000 to connect the schools to the street fiber. The contribution is also from the Connect Illinois Grant Program.
When the state grants came through, the city and DPS saw an opportunity to collaborate.
After working over a year to obtain licenses to deploy fiber across town, by this time next week the central Connecticut town of Plainville, home to approximately 17,500 residents, will begin construction of a municipal fiber network. When finished, the network will connect all town offices, public education facilities, public safety services, and wastewater treatment facilities.
Over a decade after high-speed fiber connections linking the town’s municipal center and a local high school to the statewide Nutmeg Network were first established in Plainville, multiple municipal buildings throughout town still lacked reliable broadband connections, and some had not been connected to the Internet at all.
With locally-based construction firm Sertex set to begin laying fiber for the townwide institutional network (I-Net) next week, which will include “12.5 miles of aerial cabling and three underground spans running beneath major highways,” that’s all about to change for the relatively dense, 10-square-mile community, reports Sertex.
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.
The streaks of paint and tiny white flags popping up across Block Island are not signs of surrender. They are signs of progress. The popular summer tourist destination, nine miles off the coast of Rhode Island, is on the verge of building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, bringing gig-speed Internet connectivity to the more than 1,000 residents who call the community home.
The markers on residents’ property are plot points along the construction route as network planners prepare to start building the last-mile portion at the end of March.
On Feb. 4, BroadbandBI launched its website, announcing that the construction materials had finally arrived on the Island and signaling the start of construction would soon be underway.
Sertex, the company partnering with the town to build the network, is anticipating deploying more than 60 miles of fiber to deliver high-speed Internet service directly to homes and businesses in New Shoreham, the only town on Block Island.
Pop the Champagne
Residents there unanimously voted in July 2020 to pay for the construction of the island-wide network with $8 million in bonds. Approval for the project was so overwhelming that when the vote took place the Block Island School gymnasium erupted with cheers and applause.
Currently, there are still only three options for Internet service on the Island: Verizon DSL, satellite, and mobile services with the fastest speed advertised at 35 Megabits per second (Mbps). And for a period of time, it seemed as if residents were doomed to those tortoise-like speeds forever.
In 2014, the Block Island Times captured experiences from its readers after an especially frustrating summer of spotty service. One reader, Jessica Fischburg wrote, “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
The Answer Was Blowing in the Wind
DayNet, a new Internet utility emerging in Dayton, Texas, is looking to lasso a broadband-minded boss for this small East Texas city of approximately 7,200, about 37 miles east of Houston.
Applications are being accepted for a Broadband Manager/Head Network Engineer to oversee the business and technical operations of DayNet as the city has begun construction of a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
In addition to hiring a Broadband Manager/Head Network engineer, the city is banking on the project to “increase competition and choice . . . while having a positive impact on economic development, education, and the technology amenities that are available to citizens and businesses.”
Good Credit, Better Broadband
To finance the construction, the Dayton City Council approved a $13.7 million bond issuance at a 2.56% interest rate, thanks to the city’s rising credit rating. Network construction began at the start of the year. And when the network is fully built, which is expected to be complete by 2023, 110 miles of fiber will criss-cross the city’s 11 square miles, passing every home, business, and anchor institution in Dayton.