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Another rural electric cooperative is set to bring high-quality connectivity via fiber optic infrastructure. Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) in Tennessee will be investing in a pilot program in Bradley County by year’s end.
A Learning Process - The Pilot
When it comes to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via publicly owned Internet infrastructure, Chattanooga is typically the first location on everyone’s lips. Unfortunately, neighboring Bradley County has struggled with chronically poor connectivity. Even though Chattanooga would very much like to expand their reach to serve Bradley County residents and businesses, restrictive state law prevents the city from helping their neighbors.
Last summer, VEC saw an opening when the state legislature changed existing barriers that prevented electric cooperatives from offering broadband access or from applying for state grants to deploy the infrastructure. VEC is currently in the process of preparing grant applications through the state’s economic development commission.
The purpose of the pilot, according to VEC President Rody Blevins, is to determine the level of interest in Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity in Bradley County. Areas VEC chose for the pilot include homes where there is no service and premises were there are more than one option.
"We are doing that to discover how many would choose our services who have no options as well as those who do have a source for broadband service already available," Blevins said. "That helps us looking at the bigger financial model."
"If we have real low response, that's going to hurt us," he added. "We are not for- profit, so this thing has to pay for itself overtime. If I show my board it will never pay for itself, we can't do it. But, I don't think that's going to be the case."
Blevins told the Cleveland Banner that the cooperative estimates the cost to cover 75 percent of Bradley County would be approximately $40 million. He went on to say that if 50 percent of households in the pilot areas chose to sign up, “we would be in pretty good shape.”
Not-for-profit Southern Tier Network (STN) is already providing infrastructure for local ISP Empire Access to compete with incumbents in some areas of south central New York state. Now that the dark fiber network construction is complete, STN recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a last mile broadband pilot project. Responses are due September 28, 2017.
For this project, STN seeks ISPs interested in serving a particular area in Schuyler County with the possibility of expanding to serve more premises in the future. The area in question is underserved for both residential and business connectivity.
Connectivity Opportunity In Rural New York
The network began as a partnership between Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board, Corning Incorporated, and Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben Counties. Corning contributed $10 million of the $12.2 million to deploy the original network, while the three counties shared the balance.
In 2013, STN received a $5 million New York Empire State Development fund grant, which allowed the nonprofit to expand the network into two more counties and to several local universities. The original 235-mile ring has since been extended to include more than 500 route miles. The network now touches nine counties.
Since becoming operational in 2014, STN has taken on a multifaceted task. In addition to establishing infrastructure to encourage better connectivity for residents and businesses, STN is serving public entities. The dark fiber network is improving local connectivity for public safety, schools, health care clinics, and municipal facilities.
Pilot With Larger Goals In Mind
Goals of the initiative, as stated in the RFP are:
1. Establish partnerships between the STN and interested providers for the betterment of the communities involved and for quality of life enhancements.
Bit by bit, Anacortes has been taking steps to cultivate better connectivity in their community of approximately 16,000. Earlier this week, city leaders decided to move forward with a survey to determine if residents and businesses are interested in service from a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
Considering The Next Steps
At the August 21st City Council meeting, staff provided an update of the project that the city is working on with Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) to improve city water utility efficiencies. Anacortes needed better communications between more than 30 pump stations, reservoirs, and water treatment plants and, working with NoaNet, determined that they could use abandoned water lines for fiber conduit. They’re nearing the end of what they describe as Phase I of the project.
Phase II involves determining whether or not the city wants to harness extra dark fiber capacity in the backbone for a municipal FTTH network throughout the community. Before they decide to move forward with a trial system, Anacortes and NoaNet will reach out to the community for their input starting with a survey. At the meeting the City Council approved $10,000 to fund the survey, which will also help determine which areas have the greatest demand.
If the community decides it wants a municipal network, Phase III would depend on the success of the “trial phase” and would require installation of fiber within the community. While Anacortes is still developing solid details for this phase of the plan, early discussions indicate they will take an incremental or fiberhood approach based on demand in particular areas of town.
So Many Choices
City leaders anticipate an open access model, but they are considering also taking on an additional role as a retail Internet Service Provider. In order to examine all the options, city staff are examining several possible models. One of their primary goals is to increase competition.
The community of Holland, Michigan, has moved carefully and deliberately as it has advanced toward providing better connectivity through publicly owned infrastructure. On June 7th, the City Council held a first reading on an ordinance that will allow the Holland Board of Public Works (BPW) to act as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) as it expands its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project.
Taking Another Step Forward
Holland's pilot project brings high-quality connectivity to several downtown businesses and recently adopted a Master Plan in March to solidify their commitment to more businesses and residents. The ordinance will receive a public hearing, final reading, and likely be adopted on July 19th. It allows Holland to adopt fees and charges related to the new service and will permit the city to comply with a state law relating to rights-of-way and telecommunications providers.
In addition to offering Internet access themselves, BPW will open up the fiber so competing providers can serve Holland residents and businesses. BPW officials are still hashing out rate details, but estimate residential customers who take Internet service from the utility will pay approximately $85 per month for symmetrical gigabit (1,000 Megabit per second) connectivity. Customers who wish to obtain Internet access from a provider other than BPW will pay $40 - $60 per month for transit services from BPW, but will still need to pay an ISP for Internet access.
One Step At A Time
BPW General Manager Dave Koster explained to City Council members that BPW described the pilot participants’ service so far as “outstanding.” The utility intends to monitor the success of the expanded pilot services for a year and then decide their next step.
Construction will begin in August; BPW expects to start serving new customers in October. BPW officials estimate the expanded pilot will cost $602,000 based on a 35 percent take rate.
Prince George County, Virginia, and its electric cooperative recently entered into an agreement that will allow Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC) to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to certain areas in the county. The arrangement came after a successful pilot project that proved residents and businesses in the rural community were interested in better connectivity. The agreement will inject funding into the cooperative's plans to bring high-quality connectivity to all its members.
From Rural Pilot To Proven
In February, officials from PGEC reported to the County Board of Supervisors that the pilot project was under way. The Virginia State Corporation Commission approved the cooperative's formation of its PGEC Enterprises subsidiary, which will offer connectivity to members. The co-op has connected premises along one stretch of Quaker Road in Prince George County, and received applications for installation from more than 40 property owners.
By the time PGEC had finished deploying in the pilot area in early May, a total of 49 premises were connected to the network. According to the co-op’s VP, Casey Logan, that figure represents approximately two-thirds of potential subscribers.
Jumpstarting Co-op Broadband
The performance agreement between Prince George County, PGEC, and the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) will provide $1 million to the cooperative in IDA bond funding to expand the pilot project to a wider network. The funds are part of spring bonding that covers a number of county projects. The County Board voted unanimously to dedicate the funds to the broadband expansion project.
In addition to connecting all its substations, PGEC will connect any residence, business, community anchor institution, or public facility within 1,000 feet of a state road along the fiber route. Approximately 500 premises are located within the planned fiber route. The project should take about four years to complete.
Franklin, Kentucky's Electric Plant Board is now offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity in limited areas of town through a pilot project. Franklin EPB wants to experiment with the possibility of bringing high-quality Internet access and VoIP to all its customers.
Businesses First, Now Residents
In 2013, Franklin EPB began serving local businesses after national providers refused to install fiber connectivity in local industrial parks. Community leaders in Franklin knew that retaining existing businesses and attracting new opportunities relied on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity and that giving up was not an option. The town already had experience with its own electric utility and chose to deploy and manage a municipal fiber network to spur economic development, improve connectivity for municipal facilities, and to enhance communication for EPB facilities.
A $1 million U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration grant combined with municipal bonds funded the initial deployment. The network encouraged a local establishment, Tractor Supply Company, to invest in a Franklin distribution center adding more than 330 jobs to the community.
Rural Kentucky Connecting
Approximately 8,400 people live in Franklin, which is located in central Kentucky along the southern border. Franklin is only about 90 minutes from Clarksville, Tennessee - another community with publicly owned fiber.
For now, residents in the pilot area can sign up for 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds for $50.00 per month. The pilot program page doesn’t describe them as symmetrical, but doesn’t list upload speeds. A gigabit option is not yet available but is listed as "to be determined." Installation is $49 and VoIP activation is $29.95.
Earlier this spring, Sun Prairie Utilities (SPU) and TDS Telecommunications Corp. signed a letter of intent to transfer ownership of the community’s Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to TDS. After weighing the pros and cons, the City Council approved the deal by a 4 - 2 vote at an April 11th meeting.
Conversation and Reservations
TDS will pay $2.88 million for the fiber-optic network. The asset has been valued at $2.7 - $2.8 million and the city owes $2.85 million on the network.
The company has agreed to expand the network over the next 30 months and will use customer demand to determine where to deploy new investment. If they don’t begin expansion within 30 months, TDS will pay a $25 per unit penalty to the city.
At least one Alderman felt the penalty was too lenient. “I want this contract to have real consequences if the buildout doesn’t happen like they say it will,” said Mike Jacobs at the April 11th meeting. Jacobs expressed his desire to allow SPU to continue efforts to develop the network, arguing that high-speed Internet access is an essential service like police, fire, and other services the city typically provides. He argued such an asset should not be sold to a company that needs to make profits.
Alder Maureen Crombie also wanted to hold off on approving the transaction. She stated that the Council should wait three weeks to hear residents concerns but other council members disagreed.
Incumbent Charter Communications also opposed the sale, stating that they face unfair competition now because the city will be helping TDS market the FTTH service. Alders responded to Charter’s government affairs manager by reminding him that Sun Prairie had approached the company asking for upgrades but were ignored. They also said that, had Charter offered to purchase the system, Sun Prairie officials would have considered their offer.
Pennsylvania’s state barriers won’t stop this community from improving Internet service for its municipal facilities, residents, and businesses. The City of Lancaster is collaborating with private provider MAW Communications to ensure the community has next-generation technology. Their public-private partnership, LanCity Connect, will offer affordable 1 gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) service over a new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.
Shared Risk, Public Financing
The Lancaster Online has closely followed the development of the partnership from a 2015 Wi-Fi project between the partners to the current citywide fiber plan. Here's a quick summary of the basic framework of the partnership:
MAW Communications originally built a $1.7 million fiber backbone starting in 2015 with financing from the city's water fund bond. The city had refinanced its water utility debt, saving some $7.8 million and they worked out an agreement with MAW where the private partner would deploy and own a backbone fiber network. Over the 20 year term of the deal, the city has the right to half the network for city services, including automatic meter reading (AMR) and a traffic control system, with the city being able to renew the deal for four additional terms. Officials have said this arrangement will not impact water rates.
MAW Communications will extend the network to premises, aided by a $1.5 million loan with a 7 percent interest rate from the city's general fund reserves. The provider will repay the loan over a 13 year period. As long as MAW Communications has an outstanding loan to the city, the provider cannot sell the network without the city's written approval. Though the loan will help MAW to begin building the network, the costs of connecting homes and businesses would still be prohibitive at $1,000 each if not for another element of the plan.
Eugene was recently named a recipient for a Mozilla and National Science Foundation Gigabit Community Fund award. The funding will allow education and workforce development ideas that require next-generation technologies to take advantage of the “Emerald City’s” new gigabit infrastructure.
Green Means Go
Last summer, the City Council voted to make a downtown fiber-optic infrastructure pilot project eligible for Urban Renewal funds. The approval allowed the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) the ability to expand the project to bring Gigabit per second (1,000 Megabits) capacity to more businesses in the city's downtown.
Based on the success of the pilot and the new funding source, the city solidified plans to take the publicly owned network even further last fall. The city has approved up to $3 million to expand the open access network and connect to approximately 120 downtown buildings.
On March 21st, the city and EWEB is holding a Fiber Launch Celebration downtown. They’ll hold a Fiber Lighting Ceremony and demonstrate 10 Gbps Internet speeds from XS Media, one of the first ISPs planning to offer services via the new infrastructure. Tickets to the event will benefit the Springfield Education Foundation and Looking Glass Community Services. From the event announcement:
"More and more businesses and jobs depend on high-speed internet, just as much as they depend on other basic infrastructure," says Mel Damewood, EWEB's chief engineering and operations officer. "This innovative 'open-access' model of public ownership partnered with private ISPs offers service in a cost-competitive environment, and that helps to support our growing tech sector and a vibrant downtown."
In January 2016, Holland, Michigan, made commencing fiber-optic Internet access to residential neighborhoods its number one goal for fiscal year 2017. They’re a little behind schedule, but the town is now moving forward by expanding a pilot project in order to serve a larger downtown area.
It's Really Happening
The Holland Board of Public Works (BPW) held an informational meeting on March 13th to answer questions from the community and share plans for the potential expansion. About a year ago, we reported on the results of a study commissioned by the city in which, based on a take rate of about 40 percent, 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) connectivity would cost residents about $80 per month. Small businesses would pay approximately $85 per month and larger commercial subscriber rates would run around $220 per month. The update on the plan confirms those figures, noting that the four businesses that tested the pilot services had positive experiences. As a result, BPW feels it’s time to expand to more of downtown.
"If it goes really well we hope to be able to expand the service out as far into the community as we can," said Pete Hoffswell, broadband services manager at BPW.
The expansion is planned for construction in June and July, with service testing in August. Actual delivery would be in September, BPW estimates.
BPW will use a boring technique to place conduit and fiber below ground so there will be minimal disruption. No streets will be closed. Next, BPW will get construction bids, evaluate them, and present them to the City Council for approval.
Not An Impulse Decision
Holland has had dark fiber in place for decades for the municipal electric operations. Later BPW extended it to schools and businesses that needed high capacity data services. After years of incremental expansions, the network is now more than 150 fiber miles throughout the city.