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When Mayor Gary Fuller of Opelika, Alabama, was on the podcast back in 2013, the community was building their municipal Fiber-to-the-Home network. He's back this week to talk about all the events that have occurred in his community since then; Opelika has been a whirlwind of activity which has centered around the battle to expand their network, OPS One. Mayor Fuller is joined in the wings by Derek Lee, Director of Opelika Power Services, and Joey Motley, City Administrator, who are on hand to help him with some of the details.
Mayor Fuller and Christopher discuss the reasons why the community wanted to invest in a municipal fiber optic network. In addition to improving their electric utility service with smart grid applications, the community needed an option for better Internet access. Rates from the incumbent were high, services were poor, and folks had had enough. Once the network spanned the entire city, neighboring communities wanted OPS One, but state law prevented expansion.
Christopher and the Mayor talk about the legislative battle to expand the network that went on for several years and how Opelika finally realized that the big telecom and cable companies and their lobbyists were just too powerful to beat at the State Capitol. They talk about how, even though Opelika chose to privatize the network, the community feels better off today than they would have otherwise and would do it all again.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Once again, restrictive state laws designed to help big ISPs maintain their monopolies have helped push a publicly owned network to privatization. Opelika, Alabama, recently announced that they will sell their OPS One fiber optic network to Point Broadband, headquartered in West Point, Georgia. They expect the deal to be finalized in early November.
The Road to Now
The city of Opelika installed the network to overcome poor services from Charter and to improve municipal electric services with smart grid applications. In 2010, Charter’s astroturf campaign to stop the network failed when local voters supported the ballot initiative to build the broadband infrastructure to allow the city to provide services. By 2014, Opelika Power Services (OPS) was making Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) available for residents and businesses; folks in the community were loving the service from Alabama’s “Gig City.”
Nearby communities still stuck with poor Internet access wanted OPS to serve them also and OPS wanted to add more subscribers, but state law prevents Opelika from expanding beyond their current coverage area. As in the case of Bristol, Virginia, when a state prevents a municipal network from growing and increasing revenue, the state makes it difficult for the network to remain sustainable.
Mayor Gary Fuller recently told WLTZ:
“We attempted on three occasions to get the legislature to [allow us to] expand beyond our city limits, into North Auburn and rural Lee County, Beauregard, and we could never do that because we couldn’t get the law changed.”
When Alabama State Sen. Tom Whatley from Auburn spoke with OANow in late March, he described his bill, SB 228, as a “go-to-war bill.” The bill would have allowed Opelika Power Services (OPS) to expand its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services to his community. On Wednesday, April 5th, his colleagues in the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee decided to end the conflict in favor of AT&T and its army of lobbyists.
The final vote, according to the committee legislative assistant, was 7 - 6 against the bill. She described the vote as bipartisan, although the roll call isn’t posted yet, so we have not been able to confirm.
According to Whatley:
“AT&T has hired 26 lobbyists to work against me on that bill. It really aggravates me because I have boiled one bill down to where it only allows Opelika to go into Lee County. It cuts out the other counties.”
Whatley has introduced several bills this session and in previous legislative sessions to allow OPS to expand beyond the state imposed barriers to offer services in Lee County. Alabama law doesn’t allow OPS, or any other municipal provider, to offer advanced telecommunications services outside city limits. SB 228 would allow Opelika and others (described as a “Class 6 municipalities”) to offer services throughout the counties in which they reside. A companion bill in the House, HB 375, is sitting in the House Commerce and Small Business Committee.
Rep. Joe Lovvorn, who introduced HB 375 agrees with Whatley:
“If it doesn't make sense for a large corporation to go there, that's OK that's their choice,” he said. “But they don't have the right to tell, in my opinion with my bill, the city of Opelika they can't serve them either.”
Mayor Gary Fuller won’t tolerate lies about his city. In a recent Opelika City News release titled, Setting the Record Straight - Response to Yellowhammer article, Mayor Fuller corrected the numerous misleading errors in a piece written by Jordan LaPorta. The Yellowhammer article covered a Taxpayer's Protection Alliance Foundation (TPA) report, filled with errors and misrepresentation about municipal Internet networks. TPA is one of the many front groups that describe themselves as "nonpartisan think tanks" but are actually funded by industry leaders with an agenda to advance policies that limit competition.
Mayor Fuller has seen untruths written about Opelika before, but this time he felt it was time to fight the flying monkeys.
Get Your Facts Right
Mayor Fuller corrected a number of brazen untruths LaPorta tossed out in his article, including:
- OPS ONE is not taxpayer-funded - No, LaPorta, there are no tax subsidies. Additionally, there have not been any federal or state grants used for the network.
- Expenditures grossly overstated - LaPorta incorrectly attributes the cost of an electric grid modernization ($20 million) to the cost of the FTTH network ($23 million). The two are not one and the same. Do your homework.
- Number of Gig subscribers - LaPorta reports that OPS has one Gigabit subscriber, but they actually have five residential customers who take the service. The city council has recently reduced the price to $94.99 for Gigabit service in some bundles.
This Is Why Opelika Is A Success
OPS ONE is generating annual gross revenues of around $5.5M after three years serving the community. There are more than 3,200 subscribers and testimonials of customers who appreciate obtaining service from a hometown Internet access provider. Even though OPS ONE is still young, states Mayor Fuller, it’s on track:
It’s no small feat to plan, deploy, and operate a municipal citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but communities are doing it. We’ve put together a Citywide Municipal FTTH Networks list and a map, with quick facts at your fingertips. If your community is considering such an investment, this list can offer a starting point on discovering similarly situated locations to study.
The list is divided by state and each state heading offers a description of any barriers that exist and a link to the statute in question. Under each community, we also included relevant links such as to the provider’s website, coverage on MuniNetworks.org, and reports or resources about the network.
We used four basic criteria to put a community on our list and map:
- The network must cover at least 80% of a city.
- A local government (city, town, or county) owns the infrastructure.
- It is a Fiber-to-the-Home network.
- It is in the United States.
Share the list far and wide and if you know of a community network that meets our criteria that we missed, please let us know. Contact H. Trostle at email@example.com to suggest additions.
Alabama Republican State Senator Tom Whatley tried again this session to convince his colleagues that municipal utilities need the ability to expand beyond current coverage areas. Once again, his appeal to common sense for better connectivity fell on deaf ears.
Whatley, representing the Auburn region, held fast to his promise to bring back a proposal like 2015’s SB 438. Early in February, he introduced SB 56, which stalled in the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, unable to get a hearing. The bill eliminated limitations on both services offered and where municipal systems can offer those services.
In a January OANow article, Whatley explained that, once again, he was driven by the desire to improve economic development in Auburn:
On the local level, Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, is sponsoring two bills that he hopes will drive industry to and create jobs in Auburn and Opelika. An Internet availability bill would allow municipalities that offer their own high-speed [gigabit] Internet service, such as the city of Opelika, to expand and offer it in other areas, such as in Auburn and Russell or Tallapoosa counties, which are not eligible for [gigabit] service through private Internet companies.
“The [gigabit] service is something that businesses look for,” Whatley said, adding industries look at [gigabit] Internet the way they do school systems and water and sewer before moving their business into a city. “It’s an economic development tool.”
To Spread The Wealth
We love when community networks are celebrated for their accomplishments and potential. Opelika, Alabama, started to build a network in 2010, and now local news proudly showcases the community as a Gig City.
The Fiber-to-the-Home network in Opelika turned out to be a great investment for the community. After five years of work and $43 million, the network now boasts 3,000 customers. With such incredible high-speed Internet access, Opelika hopes to attract new businesses and encourage young people to stay. For more of the history of the network, check out our interview with Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller in Episode 40 of Broadband Bits.
Local News Celebrates Opelika’s Network
As we have learned, communities with municipal networks have tended to be politically conservative. Nevertheless, conservative state level politicians have often supported measures to revoke local authority to encourage local Internet choice. Recently, Alabama State Senator Tom Whatley, a Republican from Auburn, expressed his support for local authority in AL.com.
Whatley introduced SB 438, which would remove service area restrictions on municipal providers and remove the currently restriction preventing other municipalities from providing voice, video, or Internet access services. As he notes in his opinion piece, the bill did not move beyond the Transportation and Energy Committee, but he also asserts that he will be back next year to press for the measure.
Auburn is near Opelika where the community has deployed a FTTH network to serve residents and spur economic development. If the restrictions are eliminated, Opelika could expand to Auburn and even other rural areas nearby.
Whatley makes comparisons to the strides America made with the national interstate system. He also acknowledges the way Chattanooga's network has transformed what was once described as the "dirtiest city in America." Whatley takes the same approach we encounter from many communities where, after failed attempts to entice private providers to serve their citizenry, eventually decided to take on the task themselves.
As a Republican, I believe the private sector is usually the best and most efficient method for providing a service. But when private companies, for whatever reason, make a decision not to serve an area, we should not handcuff the people of that region if they decide to use a public entity to receive that service (in this case, broadband Internet) in order to compete today for the jobs of tomorrow.
Opelika has offered FTTH to residents and businesses for less than six months but already it is singing the praises of local choice. Mayor Gary Fuller is now speaking out in an opinion piece in AL.com, encouraging the FCC to allow Wilson, Chattanooga, and other communities to have the same opportunity as Opelika.
Mayor Fuller points out that local telecommunications authority is an organic outgrowth of local self-reliance:
Cities have always been at the heart of economic expansion, entrepreneurialism, and local connection to citizens, charged with ensuring high-quality education for our children, caring for our sick and elderly neighbors, and laying the foundation for shared prosperity. As we look to the years ahead, high-speed broadband will only become more and more important to the quality and vitality of our community.
That's why in Opelika, I led the charge to become the first city in Alabama to offer this cutting edge technology, both to residential and business customers. As a result, Opelika citizens now have access to fast, reliable broadband speeds that will turn possibilities into real opportunities. Businesses now have more opportunities to expand and grow, work more effectively and efficiently, and compete in a larger market.
As one of over 450 communities that have invested in the infrastructure for better connectivity, Opelika can speak from experience. Mayor Fuller encourages all FCC Commissioners to support the notion of local choice:
The important fact is that every city must have the power to make the best decisions for their residents, free of interference. That's why the Federal Communications Commission should join Chairman Wheeler in preserving these two communities' right to self-determination.
In Opelika, our citizens are building a stronger more prosperous city based on local Internet choice. If more cities have those same opportunities, someday soon it may not be so strange for a 30,000-person city to offer blazing fast Internet.
Opelika Power Services (OPS) began offering FTTH services to the community in mid-October, reports the Opelika-Auburn News, and demand is intense. Anticipation has been high since construction began in 2010. Dave Horton, OPS Director, told the News:
“We had a line of customers waiting at 7 a.m., and we don’t open until 8.”
“The calendar is full,” [Communications Manager June] Owens said. “We’re booked through November and into December. ... We’re trying to do about 20 (installations) a day.”
At this time, OPS serves most single-family properties. There are a few apartment complexes and mobile homes that were built after fiber was planted that also have service.
Regular readers will recall that Charter launched an astroturf campaign in Opelika when it announced it was interested in a network for smart-grid and connectivity purposeds. Fortunately, the voters in Opelika were savvy and interested in taking ownership of a fiber network.
At this early stage, the network already connects approximately 30 small businesses, reports Area Development Online. OPS has extended the network to the Northeast Opelika Industrial Park and the Fox Run Business Park.
In addition to spearheading the project, Mayor Gary Fuller is starring in OPS' newest funny video, "The Ball Pit":
OPS has also developed other testimonial videos from residential and business customers, each focusing on a different element of the service.