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After Years of Talk, Cambridge, MA is Now Taking Serious Look at Municipal Broadband
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, digital equity advocates and city leaders have been debating the idea of building a citywide municipal fiber network for years now, mostly over whether the estimated $150 to $200 million it would cost to build the network would be worth it.
In a tech-savvy city, home to Harvard and MIT, the former city manager was resistant to a serious inquiry into municipal broadband. He retired last summer. But before he left, he relented on the broadband question – under pressure from city councilors and a local citizen group advocating for municipal broadband, Upgrade Cambridge.
With many residents weary of being held hostage to the whims and high cost of service from the monopoly provider in town (Comcast), which currently controls 80 percent of the city’s market, in 2021 the city hired the well-regarded Maryland-based consulting firm CTC Technology & Energy to conduct a thorough feasibility study. Now, with a new supportive city manager in office, city leaders have agreed to continue to investigate the options laid out in the recently published study.
‘Significant Public Support’ Even If It Requires Tax Money
Quincy, MA Moves Full Speed Ahead On City Owned Open Access Fiber Plan
Quincy, Massachusetts is moving full speed ahead on a long-percolating plan to bring faster and more reliable broadband to a community long neglected by regional telecom monopolies.
If successful, the resulting open access fiber network should dramatically boost competitive options in the city, driving down costs for what many view as an essential utility.
After five years of debate and planning, Quincy officials say they’re getting closer to launching a city owned open access fiber network that will provide a backbone for city services, as well as a major infusion of long overdue broadband competition citywide.
Quincy Ward 3 Councilor Ian Cain told ISLR that the city is planning to launch trial deployments in Merrymount and Quincy Point during the next few months. The city has long worked with Entrypoint networks as a technical consultant and project financial planner, and city officials are expecting an engineering and feasibility study from Tilson within a matter of weeks.
RFP Coming Soon
“We're intending to bring the request for financing before the council before the end of session, which is at the end of June,” Cain said.
"We'll be putting out an RFP for the open access component of the project soon as well. We hope to fund the project through the city council before the summer, and then ideally we would start construction in the fall."
The initial pilot project will be funded by a general obligation bond. City leaders stated Merrymount and Quincy Point were selected both with an eye on socioeconomic diversity, and because the city was certain they’d see a relatively high adoption rate.
"Quincy Point in particular has a lot of economic and cultural diversity, and I think that's really important to emphasize as we move forward," Ward 2 City Councilor Anthony Andronico said of the city’s effort. "Quincy Point and Merrymount will have an opportunity to see what works with this program, what we can improve upon and help expand it to the whole city.”
Realizing Ambitions of Open Access in Marin County, California
Creative efforts are underway in Marin County, California to bring fiber connectivity to underserved pockets of the community and eventually the whole area. Digital Marin, currently housed within the county’s Information Services and Technology Department, is coordinating the project, and is leaning towards a municipally-owned, open-access solution modeled after Ammon’s standout network in Idaho.
Just across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, Marin County is home to about 265,000 residents, as well as the Muir Woods National Monument, a County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and nearly 73 miles of coastal trail. Despite largely being considered an urban county, Marin also includes suburban and rural areas with 40 percent of the county classified as protected park land.
When it comes to Internet connectivity, the area is peppered with what Marin County resident and Digital Marin Executive Steering Committee member, Bruce Vogen, calls “donut holes of high-quality Internet access.” An unknown provider built a DSL network in the region many years ago and then Comcast later bought and inherited the antiquated infrastructure. Soon after, AT&T entered the market but selected only the most profitable neighborhoods to serve. All 90,000 of the county’s urban households can access the Internet through Comcast, but just 20,000 of these homes have access to the archipelago of AT&T’s fiber network. In any case, Marin’s urban areas are either subject to monopoly or duopoly market control. It has long been apparent there is a digital divide in Marin County, but it wasn’t until the 2022 FCC maps were released that the contours of this divide came into focus.
Lewis County Pushes Forward with Open Access Fiber Plan
Lewis County, Washington and the Lewis County Public Utility District (PUD) are making progress with their plan to deploy an open access fiber network that should dramatically boost broadband competition—and lower prices—county wide by 2026.
In November 2019, Lewis County PUD received a $50,000 grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to study the county’s broadband shortcomings and determine whether taking direct action to address them made sense. In early 2020, the PUD formed the Lewis County Broadband Action Team (BAT) to further study community needs.
Those inquiries found what most U.S. communities know too well: concentrated monopolization had left county residents overpaying for substandard, expensive, and spotty broadband access unsuitable for modern living.
In response, the Lewis County PUD announced in 2021 it would be building an 134-mile-long fiber backbone and open access fiber network for around $104 million. Around $23.5 million of that total will be paid for by a recently awarded grant by the Washington State Department of Commerce, itself made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
NYC Co-op Told To Pull Free Service From Affordable Housing After City’s Reversal On Open Access Fiber
Last November we noted how New York City had scrapped its longstanding plan to build a promising open access fiber network. Not only did that stark reversal leave many partner ISPs high and dry after years of planning, some local community-run ISPs now say the city is forcing them to remove existing free service to affordable housing developments.
People’s Choice Communications, a small NYC cooperative cobbled together by striking Charter Communications workers, was one of several ISPs left in a lurch by the sudden reversal by the Adams administration.
Adding insult to injury, the ISP is now being told by the city to pull existing service provided for free to marginalized communities in The Bronx.
New York City’s original master plan was poised to be a game changer when it was first introduced back in 2020. The plan not only included a pilot program designed to bring affordable broadband to 450,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, but a plan to spend $156 million on a pilot open access fiber network.
The proposal was to showcase the real-world benefits of the open access model, which data suggests results in significantly lower costs and higher quality service thanks to increased competition. If successful, the city would have then considered a bigger $2.1 billion plan to deploy such a network citywide, providing a template for major metropolitan areas nationwide.
New Mayor, Old Playbook
With the election of a new mayor, everything changed.
Open Access Conduit in West Des Moines, Iowa Brings Google Fiber, Choice to City Residents
West Des Moines, Iowa is making steady progress on a $60 million open access fiber-optic conduit system to expedite the delivery of affordable fiber citywide. And they’re doing it with the help of Google Fiber, which has slowly started to reverse course after the company’s 2016 decision to lay off hundreds of staff and freeze most meaningful expansion.
West Des Moines is a suburb of Des Moines with a population of 67,000 residents. Like so many U.S. communities, locals have long complained of high broadband prices, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service by the area’s entrenched local monopolies. Iowa studies routinely identify substandard broadband access as a top regional complaint.
So, as in many communities across the U.S., West Des Moines leaders decided to do something about it, in the form of a new public-private partnership with Google. The $60 million bond-funded project will result in citywide fiber conduit, which will be made available to any Internet service provider (ISP) interested in serving the city in a bid to dramatically boost local broadband competition.
The city is hopeful that ISP access costs ultimately cover the full build cost of the fledgling network. Google Fiber has already committed to pay the city an estimated $16 million to access the city’s new open access conduit system. Other ISPs that have never served the city before, including locally owned and operated Mi-Fiber, have also stated they’ll pay to access the conduit.
Generate City Revenue and Meet Growing Need of Residents
West Des Moines first announced the project in the summer of 2020, noting that it would lay more than a 1,000 miles of conduit alongside city streets, after which Google would come in and deploy its own fiber network to every last city address. In preparation, Google Fiber opened a brick and mortar retail location in West Des Moines in 2021.
Ziply, iFIBER Merger Could Boost Washington State Broadband Access
Ziply Fiber has been increasingly active across Washington State, helping municipalities expand access to affordable, open access fiber networks. Those efforts have received a significant boost with the news that Ziply has acquired iFiber Communications, a Washington state open access ISP that works closely with Washington’s growing public utility districts (PUDs).
According to the Ziply announcement, the acquisition was for an undisclosed sum, but should dramatically help the company’s focus on expanding affordable fiber broadband service to Pacific Northwest customers long unserved or underserved by regional broadband monopolies like Comcast and Frontier Communications.
Ziply Fiber has unveiled new fiber construction projects across more than 90 cities and towns across the Northwest since the company began its fiber expansion plans in the summer of 2020. The iFiber acquisition is the second this year, Ziply having acquired Oregon fiber and wireless ISP Eastern Oregon Net, Inc (EONI) last June.
They’ve been particularly active in Washington state, most recently partnering with the Snohomish county government to leverage a $16.7 million Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration grant to expand affordable fiber access across the county. Ziply’s also been in talks with Whidbey Island, Washington officials on a major fiber expansion push.
Allegan County, Michigan Zeroes in On New Open Access Fiber Network
Allegan County, Michigan is moving forward with an ambitious new plan to bring affordable fiber broadband to 12,000 unserved addresses across the county. The project will be in partnership with Southfield, Michigan based 123NET, made possible in large part due to more than $17.7 million in county American Rescue Plan Act funds.
“123NET has proposed a fiber to the home proposal to approximately 12,000 addresses of residents who don’t have access to 100 Mbps (Megabit per second) download fixed service,” Allegan County Broadband Project Manager Jill Dunham told ISLR.
Nichols, New York Pushes Forward On Open Access Fiber Network
Nichols, New York (pop. 2,300) is the latest U.S. community to embrace open access, community-run fiber as an alternative to monopoly power. The upstate New York town, saddled among rolling green hills close to the Pennsylvania border, hopes the new initiative will boost broadband availability and lower costs.
A nonprofit by the name of the Southern Tier Network (STN) has been tasked with building the Nichols fiber network. In a September status update, STN officials stated that five miles of fiber had already been deployed, and they’re waiting for New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) and Verizon to approve requests to use local utility poles to string more.
In-home installations began on September 12th. So far the open access network only serves as home to one ISP: Ithaca, New York based Fiberspark, which currently offers locals broadband tiers ranging from 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) down and 20 Mbps up for $40/month to a symmetrical gigabit per second (Gbps) tier for $80 per month.
The project was made possible by New York State’s ConnectALL initiative, a $1 billion broadband expansion effort recently heralded as one of the biggest investments in broadband infrastructure in state history. The program was financed through existing state funds and a significant infusion courtesy of federal funds.
Lehi City, Utah Breaks Ground On Open Access Fiber Network
Lehi City, Utah has broken ground on its new citywide fiber optic broadband network. The network, which city leaders say should take somewhere around three years to complete, will be built on the back of Lehi’s Utilities Department, part of a growing trend of U.S. utilities using an historic infusion of federal funding to expand affordable broadband connectivity.
The Lehi Fiber Network will operate as an open access network, meaning that multiple ISPs will be able to utilize the city’s new infrastructure, providing a much-needed dose of broadband competition to local residents and businesses alike.
Five ISPs have already committed to providing service over the city-owned fiber, with the first customers expected to see service sometime in early 2023. Lehi’s partner ISPs have yet to specify tier pricing, but data consistently shows that such open access competition routinely drives down costs and improves service quality in regions where it’s adopted.
After hiring Magellan to conduct a feasibility study, the city in 2020 approved financing the network with a bond it hopes will be fully paid off by broadband subscriber revenues. In 2021, the city announced it had chosen Strata Networks — the largest independent cooperative in Utah — to build and operate the network.