Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Peppered by winding country roads and remote islands, Maine exemplifies the challenges in even deployment of affordable broadband. But thanks to tenacious island communities and forward-thinking state leadership, a growing roster of community-owned broadband networks are leading the charge toward affordable access in the Pine Tree State.
Peggy Schaffer, former executive director of the state of Maine's broadband mapping and expansion effort, ConnectMaine, has played a starring role in shoring up Maine’s broadband mapping data after years of federal dysfunction.
Schaffer’s well versed in the broad array of challenges faced by remote Maine communities, and says she’s long been impressed by the “scrappy” nature of Maine’s community-owned island deployments, which have faced down and overcome no limit of onerous challenges in an ongoing quest to finally bridge the state’s long standing digital divide.
Maine is currently ranked 49th in the U.S. in terms of resident access to gigabit-capable broadband service. Like so much of the country, the state is heavily dominated by regional monopolies that failed to uniformly deliver affordable, next-generation broadband, despite decades of federal subsidies, regulatory favors, and tax breaks.
Now local Maine communities are taking matters into their own hands, beginning with long-neglected island residents no stranger to unique logistical challenges.
‘It’s A Story Of Perseverance’
Ottawa County, Michigan officials say they’ve struck a new public private partnership (PPP) with 123Net on a $25 million fiber deployment that aims to bring more uniform – and affordable – broadband access to Michigan’s seventh largest county by population.
The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners voted last month to approve a master agreement and letter of intent with 123Net.
The finalized agreement calls for 123Net to spend two years deploying 400 miles of new fiber infrastructure as part of an open access, carrier neutral fiber network to bring new competition – and affordable fiber – to 10,000 county residents and businesses.
The $25 million network will be funded by $14 million from Michigan’s Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) grant program; $7.5 million from Ottawa County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, and $3.5 million in private funding from 123NET.
“We’re at an interesting time in broadband deployment as there are a number of unique funding programs that counties and municipalities can access,” said Chuck Irvin, Executive Vice President of 123NET, said in a statement. “123NET is proud to be part of this exciting project.”
At the same time, county officials say they’ve struck a separate deal with Tilson Technology to build new wireless towers to deliver fixed wireless service to an undetermined number of rural county residents for whom deploying fiber is cost prohibitive.
Golden, Colorado has struck a new right-of-way agreement with Google Fiber that should expedite the competitive delivery of affordable fiber to the city of 20,000.
The deal gives Google Fiber non-exclusive access to public right-of-way to build a commercial broadband network, though it delivers no guarantee of uniform access across the entire city.
In a memo to the Golden City Council, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer Jiles McCoy said the city’s new agreement “would act as a template for any future companies wishing to build broadband services in the Golden right of way.”
The move comes after years of discussion in the city as to how to improve local broadband competition, reduce prices, and expand affordable access.
In 2016, Golden residents voted to opt out of a now defunct state law, ghost written by regional broadband monopolies, restricting the construction and operation of community owned and operated broadband networks. Last year Colorado leaders finally eliminated the law completely, opening the door to greater expansion of community-owned networks.
In 2019 the city completed a feasibility study showing that the construction of a full city-owned fiber network would cost $37 million. Instead of tackling the entire project at once, advisers recommended the city proceed in phases, beginning with the construction of a $3.8 million, 10.5 mile fiber ring connecting key community anchor institutions.
Eagle, Idaho is preparing to connect the first of the city’s 32,000 residents to a new, municipally-owned open access fiber network. The project, which the city says will take between five to 10 years to complete, is being heavily funded by federal grants, and aims to meaningfully boost broadband competition – and affordable access – citywide.
ISLR profiled Eagle’s efforts last year, noting that the $5 million initial downtown fiber loop was jump-started with the help of the city’s $6.7 million allotment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
Roughly 300 homes and 30 businesses should be able to connect to the network within the next six months, the city now says. More than 30 residential subdivisions are in the early deployment phase, and the project will expand steadily over the next decade, funded by revenues from existing subscribers and future state and federal grant opportunities.
Like countless American communities, Eagle suffers from a notable lack of competition between regional phone giant Lumen (formerly Centurylink, now operating under the Quantum brand), and regional cable company CableOne (under the Sparklight brand). That muted competition results in high prices, spotty access, slow speeds, and substandard customer service.
Enter Eagle’s open access fiber network, which will allow numerous ISPs to compete in layers, driving down market entry costs for providers and broadband access prices for consumers. City leaders say the aim is to offer symmetrical gig speed service for between $50 and $60 to residents, and $150 per month to local businesses.
NEK Broadband continues to bring affordable fiber access to the long-neglected corners of the Green Mountain State. According to the latest update by NEK Broadband, a recently completed rollout has delivered affordable fiber access to 700 new addresses across multiple rural Vermont communities.
NEK Broadband is one of nine Communications Union Districts (CUDs) scattered across the state of Vermont. NEK Broadband alone represents 45 Vermont communities across Caledonia, Essex, Orleans and Lamoille Counties in the northeast part of the state (see the full list of communities here).
The CUD’s latest expansion plan primarily focused on bringing fiber access to parts of Danville, Kirby, Lyndon, St. Johnsbury, Walden and Wheelock, Vermont. With this latest expansion, NEK Broadband now provides fiber access to 2,100 predominantly rural Vermont residents in total, many of which only received broadband for the first time last year.
“We’re so pleased to end 2023 by giving more residents of the NEK access to high-speed internet,” Christa Shute, NEK Broadband’s Executive Director, said in a prepared statement. “We plan to bring even more residents online in early 2024.”
The CUD currently provides upgraded users with access to speeds that exceed those provided by cable and DSL providers, even in many more urban markets.
NEK Broadband currently offers four tiers of broadband service: symmetrical 50 megabit per second (Mbps) service for $80 a month; symmetrical 250 Mbps service for $103 a month; symmetrical 500 Mbps service for $135 a month; and a symmetrical gigabit per second (Gbps) offering for $250 a month.
Los Alamos County, New Mexico joins the growing list of municipalities looking to explore a community-owned broadband network in a bid to improve resident access to fast, affordable, next-generation fiber.
The request for proposal (RFP), originally issued August 13, called for design, planning, and construction partners for a locally-owned and operated fiber network. An updated RFP was issued on December 12, 2023 stating that applications for phase two of their planned project were deemed “incomplete.” The county has given potential partners until January 12 to respond.
“The county team is now reviewing the submitted proposals,” the county states. “Once one is selected and an agreement finalized, the county will request the council award a contract. This may occur in early 2024.”
The RFPs come after county council leaders passed a motion last January declaring “…that high-quality reliable telecommunication including broadband is an essential service.” Los Alamos County officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment asking for more detail on the county’s goals. Local outlets suggest more details should emerge in 2024.
New Mexico is poised to receive more than $635 million in broadband subsidies courtesy of the Broadband Equity Access and Development (BEAD) program, made possible in turn by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
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.
Waterloo, Iowa’s municipal broadband project has taken a major step forward after nearly two decades of planning.
Waterloo Fiber officials just launched their first limited fiber trial, will connect their first commercial customers in February, and are on target to deploy affordable fiber at speeds up to 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) to every last city resident by 2026.
When we last checked in with Waterloo in February of last year, the city was putting the finishing touches on a plan to spend $115 million to build a fiber backbone accessible to all 67,695 Waterloo residents, after locals approved the city issuing general obligation bonds to fund the start of the three-phase construction project.
Construction of the network began last summer at a groundbreaking ceremony hosted by Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.
“It will be the lifeline that connects our entire community, enabling businesses to thrive, students to excel and families to stay connected," Hart told attendees. "This fiber system will lay the foundation for a smart city innovation, economic growth and an enhanced quality of life for all our residents."
Last month the city connected the first of four participants in a limited pilot project.
As digital inclusion practitioners and broadband-for-all advocates continue to push Congress to save the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), 22.5 million Americans now enrolled in the program are weeks away from being officially notified of its pending termination as ACP funds are on track to be depleted by the end of April.
The looming demise of the ACP – which provides income-eligible households with a $30 monthly voucher to pay for pricey Internet service bills ($75/month for Tribal citizens living on reservations) – comes at a crucial moment in the rollout of the “Internet For All” initiative. All 56 States and U.S. territories are poised to receive nearly $45 billion in broadband expansion funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law over the next year.
Separate from the BEAD program and Digital Equity Act funding, the bipartisan infrastructure law also established the ACP with a $14.2 billion allocation. At current enrollment rates, the program disburses about $650 million per month to Internet service providers (ISPs).
A looming new bill by Republican Kentucky State Senator Gex Williams could undermine decades of broadband progress made in the state’s capital city by a popular locally-owned utility, Frankfort Plant Board (FPB).
Home to 28,000 Kentuckians, local residents and utility officials in Frankfort are incensed at the bill, which they believe will unnecessarily result in higher rates, fewer jobs, and less broadband competition overall.
Williams is circulating a bill in the Kentucky state legislature that, if passed, would force FPB to sell its broadband division to a private-sector company and subject it to more stringent oversight requirements. In guest editorials circulated in the local press, Williams insists his goal is to “rein in” the FPB, which he deems part of a “runaway” government that lacks accountability.
But there’s no evidence for Williams’ allegations of limited accountability, and locals and activists alike believe that the legislator is simply running interference for regional broadband monopolies upset by the added competition created by the popular, publicly-owned utility.
Another Community-Owned Solution Addressing Market Failure
Like many local U.S. communities, Frankfort sees a notable dearth of meaningful broadband competition, resulting in patchy broadband coverage, slow speeds, high prices, and abysmal customer service. Enter the Frankfort Plant Board, which has been deploying affordable fiber access across the community under the NEXTBAND brand.