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Leaders in Lancaster, California, Authorize Resolution to Allow City to Move on Muni, Other Utilities
At a Lancaster City Council meeting on May 14th, community leaders voted unanimously to take a step toward establishing several municipal utilities, including a publicly owned fiber optic network.
Good Experiences with Their Public Utility
Lancaster Choice Energy (LCE) is the city’s municipal electric utility, but in the future may be one of several publicly owned utilities. LCE has a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program, which allows individual users within the community to join together for purchasing power and gives them more control over matters such as the source of their energy. Lancaster wants to become a net-zero city and is exploring a range of approaches to reach that goal.
The community also underwent traffic signal upgrades like many other California communities and has installed additional fiber as the city has started to implement Smart City initiatives. At the city council meeting, City Manager Jason Caudle noted that using the fiber optic assets to develop a community network was a strong possibility.
In an article in the Antelope Valley Press published prior to the meeting, Caudle also noted that they plan other uses for the fiber, “As part of our smart cities effort, we’ve installed fiber-optic networks already throughout our city, and then we’re looking at putting our streetlights into Wi-Fi hotspots as well as 5G networks,” he said.
In his report to the council, Caudle wrote:
The establishment of a municipal utility is the next step in continuing to ensure that citizens and businesses are provided with utility services that meet the current and future needs of the community. As a municipal utility, Lancaster will have the opportunity to utilize advanced technology, provide utility services at rates and charges that are fair and reasonable, provide high quality customer service, and provide alternatives to existing providers of utility services similar to what the City achieved through the development of the City’s CCA.
NRECA Fact Sheet: Electric Cooperatives Could Bring High-Speed Internet To Another 6.3 Million Households
Cooperatives are building the next-generation networks that will support rural areas long into the future. We’ve covered this extensively at ILSR as we have gathered materials on community networks from across the country into one place. We want to share this fact sheet from National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association (NRECA) on how electric cooperatives are well-situated to bring high-speed Internet service to another 6.3 million households.
6.3 Million Households Have a Co-op, But No Broadband
The fact sheet features an insightful map of the areas within electric cooperative service territories that do and do not have broadband. (Note: The FCC defines broadband as a speed of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.) Many telephone and electric cooperatives can take the credit for bringing needed connectivity to their communities. For example, more than 90 electric cooperatives across the U.S. have built Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks, which offer some of the fastest Internet service in the country.
The NRECA fact sheet, however, reveals the 6.3 million households in rural electric cooperative service areas that still need high-speed Internet access. These areas are primarily in the Midwest and the South. Creating pathways for electric cooperatives to extend Internet service is increasingly a priority in a number of these states, and state legislatures are now passing laws to empower both electric and telephone cooperatives. NRECA offers more policy recommendations to continue the momentum.
You can learn more about the ways rural cooperatives are bringing better connectivity to rural areas by reading our 2017 report, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era.
By this July, the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) expects to begin serving the the first subscribers to Fibersonic, the town’s municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Construction, which began in January, is rolling along and SHELD anticipates the citywide project will be completed within four years.
Showing Their Interest
SHELD is signing up subscribers now on the Fibersonic website. Residents who express the desire for the service will also help SHELD see which of the town’s 32 fiberhoods are more likely to gather more subscribers at a rapid rate and can help determine which areas are connected first. The first two areas where construction crews are working are the Ridge Road and Old Lyman Road areas. Each fiberhood will serve approximately 250 to 300 subscribers.
Check out the Fibersonic map, which SHELD will keep updated for the community, to see where construction occurs.
Sean Fitzgerald, who came to SHELD from Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), says that the intense interest from the South Hadley public reflects the lack of competition in town. Comcast offers Internet access in South Hadley, along with cable TV and voice services.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest. Customers are giving us a lot of positive feedback. There’re very hungry to have competition, to have options,” Fitzgerald said, “a chance to pick from different vendors versus having to choose one.”
SHELD offers one level of service: symmetrical gigabit connectivity for $74.95 per month. If subscribers enroll in autopay, the monthly rate drops to $70 per month. There’s no installation fee and the municipal utility offers a seasonal discount for subscribers who will be away from their homes for three to six months.
Local communities in the state of Mississippi have the legal authority to develop publicly owned Internet networks and offer broadband, or any other utility, to the general public. When it comes to bonding in order to financing deployment for broadband infrastructure, however, the law isn’t as cut and dry. In order to stay on the right side of the law, the community of Columbus, Mississippi, decided to obtain permission from the state legislature to issue bonds for a $2.75 million expansion of their existing fiber optic network. Things didn’t work out as well as they had hoped, thanks to powerful lobbying influence in Jackson.
Stuck in Committee
Rep. Jeff Smith is Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and introduced HB 1741, which would have granted permission for the city of Columbus to issue bonds to fund the infrastructure for better connectivity. Smith, who is also a board attorney for Columbus Light and Water (CLW), filed the bill because past opinions from state Attorneys General conflict on interpretation of the law. Bond attorneys told the utility board that the safest way forward would be to approach the Mississippi State Legislature for permission to bond.
The bill was directed to the House Local and Private Committee, but never received a hearing before the committee deadline of March 28th. According to Smith, HB 1741 had necessary support in the House, but Senate leadership would not let the bill advance:
"We were told lobbyists from Comcast and the other big cable providers had sat down with (Lt. Governor Tate Reeves) and encouraged him to kill three similar bills," Smith said. "He's the president of the Senate so ... when we heard that we knew it wasn't going to make it."
In Hopkinsville, Kentucky, “the idea that [Internet] connectivity is a luxury” will soon be a relic of the past. The city’s municipal electric provider, Hopkinsville Electric System (HES), is currently working through its Internet service, EnergyNet, to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to all premises.
EnergyNet has offered fiber Internet service for over 10 years to local businesses, but in January 2018, HES made the special announcement that it would soon be providing the same service to all local residences, with the goal of making Hopkinsville the next “gig city.” The General Manager of HES, Jeff Herd, explained that by offering fiber Internet service, HES “is looking ahead and building infrastructure not only for today’s needs, but any future needs [Hopkinsville] might have as it relates to connectivity.”
While the current plan is to offer citywide FTTH, HES is building out the network one neighborhood at a time. Hopkinsville residents can register their interest for service on the EnergyNet website and neighborhoods with the most reported interest will be served first.
All options are symmetrical, and subscribers can choose from three tiers of service:
Last week, Trustees in Estes Park, Colorado, unanimously voted to change the community’s municipal code in order to bring constituents what they want — a publicly owned broadband network.
It’s been four years since 92 percent of voters in Estes Park chose to opt out of the state’s restrictive SB 152. By reclaiming local telecommunications authority through the opt out referendum in 2015, the mountain town of approximately 6,300 residents was able to explore possibilities for better connectivity.
After several days-long outages caused by lack of redundant infrastructure in the area, local business leaders and town officials knew it was time to take control of the situation. Surveys in the community revealed that approximately two-thirds of respondents want better connectivity in the community and of those respondents, 40 percent consider it the most important service the town can offer.
Recently, local editors from the Trail Gazette echoed the sentiments of the community and urged community leaders to end discussion and take action:
…Estes Park needs more action and less discussion for greater access to information and global connectivity. No longer is accessible, fast and reliable broadband Internet a luxury; it is a necessity in our digital world.
Prior to the March 12th vote, the Broad of Trustees opened up the meeting to allow comments from the public. In addition to Trustees’ questions about economic development, reliability, and potential capacity of the proposed infrastructure, residents stepped forward to voice their opinions.
Not one citizen spoke out against the project.
Town resident Michael Bertrand, who works as an asset manager for a real estate investment firm and works remotely, opened up public comment with a statement in favor of the project. "I need reliable internet," Bertrand said. "I've had fiber in other locations in the past and it's incredible. The speeds you get are just fantastic."
It was more than two years ago when voters in Vinton, Iowa, resoundingly gave their blessing to the city to form a telecommunications utility. After study and consideration, the municipality is now ready to move from design to deployment.
In mid-December, a Notice to Bidders went out from the Vinton Municipal Electric Utility (VMEU) and the engineering firm working with the community to develop a publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network. According to the notice, Vinton plans to build the network “in its entirety” over the next year.
According to the media release, the city plans an underground deployment and anticipates the network will include approximately 82 miles of fiber. The Media Release indicates that several RFPs will be forthcoming throughout 2019.
Read the Notice to Bidders Media Release here.
In the fall of 2015, after Vinton voters decided 792 to 104 to put VMEU in control of the broadband initiative, it took until early 2017 for the city to hire a firm to develop a feasibility study. Many people in the community of about 5,100 people were tired of poor Internet access via slow DSL. Cable Internet access is available in some areas of town, but both residents and businesses feel that without high-quality connectivity, Vinton will lose out to other Iowa towns that already have created municipal networks.
Cedar Falls and Waverly are both within an hour's drive north of Vinton. Other communities in Iowa have invested in fiber networks to improve economic development, including Spencer, Lenox, and Harlan.
Ninety miles west of Boston, the small town of South Hadley, Massachusetts, will soon have a new, municipal option for Internet access. In October, the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) Board of Commissioners unanimously approved plans to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout the town of 17,000. The network would bring high-speed fiber connectivity to South Hadley businesses and residents, who can currently choose between Comcast and Verizon for Internet access, while also enabling the municipal electric utility to implement smart grid technologies.
SHELD has been considering offering fiber optic Internet access to residents for several years. After hiring the current General Manager, Sean Fitzgerald, in 2017, management started to seriously examine the possibility of building a FTTH network. “What we’ve really been focused on this last year and a half,” Fitzgerald shared at the SHELD Board of Commissioners meeting, “is being diligent in reviewing the costs, the risks, the economic benefits for our customers and the South Hadley community at large.” In approving the network, Commissioner Vern Blodgett said, “SHELD is really ready financially and management-wise to take on a project like this.”
Smart Grid, Economic Development Benefits
One reason for SHELD’s interest in a fiber network is the potential to deploy Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI). While evaluating plans to provide Internet access, electric department management realized that current meters needed to be replaced, providing a perfect opportunity to upgrade to smart meter technology that could be integrated into the fiber network. This technology could help the utility better manage the electric grid load and respond to outages, ultimately saving SHELD money and improving customer experience. “It’s the future [of electric service],” Fitzgerald explained to the board. “If your power goes out, we will know maybe even before you do.”
Earlier this month, Chattanooga’s celebrated as municipal network EPB Fiber Optics announced that they now have more than 100,000 subscribers. The high numbers indicate that the network is serving more than 60 percent of premises in the EPB service area. EPB's success also attests to the popularity of publicly owned Internet infrastructure that is accountable and responsive to the community that both own and use the network.
An Expected Milestone, Big Benefits
Hitting six digit subscribership this fall was no surprise based on rapid growth and intense interest in EPB’s affordable, symmetrical 10 gigabit connectivity along with other available speeds. When the city began serving subscribers in 2009, they based initial figures on an estimate of 35,000 subscribers within five years to break even. Within 18 months, they had already surpassed those goals.
Having paid off remaining debt earlier this year, more revenue is now freed up for more investment back into the system or to put back into the community. The utility is now reinvesting around $42 million per year back into the electric system and power rates are lower for the entire community, regardless of whether or not electric customers are EPB Fiber Optic subscribers.
"Contrary to the fears some had about us spending power funds to pay for this service, our power rates are actually 7 percent lower than they otherwise would be because of our Fiber Optic network and the business it has generated for us," EPB President David Wade said.
In addition to significant savings on power rates, Chattanooga has experienced an influx of economic development as tech companies have come to the city specifically for the network. “Gig City” Mayor Andy Berke:
Chicopee, Massachusetts, is on its way to better connectivity through a publicly owned network after all. Chicopee Electric Light (CEL) has announced that the municipal utility plans to develop a pilot program yet this year to experiment with business connectivity. If all goes well, they have a long-term vision to also serve residents.
Remember That Resolution You Introduced?
Last week, we reported that at a recent meeting, City Councilor Joel McAuliffe had presented a resolution seeking support for a municipal network. Rather than pass it, however, the council referred the resolution on to the Utilities Committee for further review. McAuliffe created an online petition to show his colleagues on the council that their constituents supported a publicly owned network.
According to local outlet The Reminder, as the issue of municipal connectivity became a hot topic, CEL decided it was time to release news of their plan to launch a pilot project.
CEL General Manager Jeff Cady said, “We’re a municipal utility and operate in the best interest of our stakeholders, the rate payers. We’re going to operate our Internet service in the same way. We’re going to start slowly, providing service to a handful of businesses to iron out any issues.”
Cady went on to tell The Reminder that, even though the feasibility study was a few years old, the data was still valid and CEL are close to finalizing their plans.
CEL has already decided on a name for the service: Crossroads Fiber. The network will be deployed in phases, with businesses closest to existing fiber assets scheduled to be the first for connection. Approximately 70 percent of businesses in Chicopee are already near the community’s existing fiber and some are already receiving service through an agreement between CEL and Holyoke Gas & Electric. Once the initial pilot project is completed and CEL has had a chance to discover and resolve any issues, they anticipate expanding the pilot area in 2019.
Residents Won't Have to Wait Too Long