Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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In early August, the city of Holland, Michigan (pop. 33,000) voted to fund the construction of a citywide, open access fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network. It’s the culmination of almost a decade of consideration, education, planning, and success, and builds on decades of work by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW) and city officials to build and maintain resilient essential infrastructure for its citizens. It also signals the work the community has done to listen to local residents, community anchor institutions, and the business owners in pushing for an investment that will benefit every premises equally and ensure fast, affordable Internet access is universally available for decades down the road.
In the Works
Holland has been formally exploring the need for better local connectivity since before 2016. It has been aided in this effort by the fact that the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), which already provides electricity, water, and waste water services, has been maintaining a small institutional fiber network that it first installed in 1992 (see current coverage in map, right, current as of May 2019).
In the 1980s, Rancho Cucamonga proclaimed itself “The City with a Plan.” Back then, the plan was to remake this once rural enclave known for its vineyards into more than just one of the many sunny suburbs of Los Angeles. The vision was to leverage its stretch of the famed Route 66 highway as a branding and economic development tool and transform the city into a premier destination within the Inland Empire metropolitan area along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
That forward-looking spirit was revived again 30 years later as city leaders looked to cultivate a digital vineyard with the creation of a “Fiber Optic Master Plan” – a six-year $13 million investment plan that targets the city’s new development.
Today, Rancho Cucamonga (its name was derived from a Native American word meaning “sandy place”) owns and operates Rancho Cucamonga Municipal Broadband in partnership with Onward, a local private Internet service provider.
The city built, owns, and maintains the physical infrastructure, which is managed by the Rancho Cucamonga Municipal Utility (RCMU). Onward, which is based in the city, provides gigabit speed Internet access to the network’s 525 mostly residential subscribers as the network slowly expands to reach yet-to-be-built residential developments.
Targeting Greenfield Projects and Businesses
The move toward municipal broadband began in earnest in 2016 when the city hired Magellan Advisors to develop a plan that would leverage the city’s existing fiber assets and expand its municipal utility fiber network to “greenfield projects” and the city’s business parks (see the map below that shows blue areas where service exists and orange areas where service is coming).
How Clarksville became Arkansas’ First Two-Gigabit City - Episode 506 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by John Lester, General Manager of Clarksville Connected. The two discuss how Clarksville, a small rural community of about 10,000 in northwest Arkansas at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, became the Natural State’s first 2 gig city.
Chris and John cover how Clarksville became the first city in Arkansas to issue bonds to build a municipal broadband network and how the city was able to navigate the state’s anti-municipal broadband preemption laws to provide its residents and businesses with reliable and affordable high-speed Internet connectivity.
They also discuss how the city was able to quickly build out the network before the onset of the pandemic and has reached a take-rate that surpassed initial projections. They go on to highlight the impact the network has had on powering economic development and boosting the local real estate market, while also exploring how the city worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide free connectivity to low-income residents living in affordable housing units.
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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.
Dickson, Tennessee (pop. 15,500) was the third municipal electric system to take power from the Tennessee Valley Authority after its creation in 1933, but the utility actually predates the regional electric generation system by almost 30 years. Today, it’s entering a new phase of life, parlaying its 117-year history of bringing affordable electric service into an $80 million fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) build that will see every household in its footprint (37,000 meters) get future-proof Internet access within the next four years.
A Cooperative in Municipal Clothing
Established in 1905, the very first Dickson Electric System (DES) customers received their power from a single 150-horsepower external combustion steam engine. DES upgraded its capacity in 1923, switching to two 150-horsepower oil-burning engines. A little more than a decade later, the TVA was established and DES took service, joining the maturing regional electric system and bringing its 650 customers and 50 miles of line into what would eventually be a group of more than 150 local power utilities almost a century later.
Today, Dickson Electric territory covers almost 800 square miles across Dickson, Hickman, Cheatham, Williamson, Humphreys, Houston, and Montgomery Counties (with the bulk of its customers in the first three), across about 2,600 miles of distribution line to 37,000 locations.
In June of 2020, Cullman Electric Cooperative launched Sprout Fiber Internet, a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network to bring broadband access to its members in rural Alabama. Sprout Fiber has taken significant strides since then, connecting its 1,300th subscriber in October of 2021.
By July of 2020, Sprout Fiber had started the first phase of network construction, with plans to connect 25 percent of Cullman’s membership – or 12,000 households – by spring of 2022. Sprout’s first customer was connected in January 2021. By the following September, Sprout was serving “over 1,000 broadband customers and handling about 12 activations per day,” with a little under half of its Phase I deployment finished. This puts its take rate around 20 percent in less than a year. By November, Sprout Fiber had completed a fiber ring backbone to connect its offices and substations.
Expanding Access and Choices
Local competition includes AT&T and Charter Spectrum, which offer service to the town of Cullman itself but not to its surrounding areas. Several wireless and satellite providers also offer service locally. There is significant demand for Sprout Fiber’s service, however, including from members in gap areas that don’t have other options for high-speed Internet access. According to Sprout Fiber, “twenty-five percent of [its] service territory still does not have any access to [the] Internet, and other areas do not have access to a quality Internet connection.”
Guided by member demand and targeting areas without existing robust broadband infrastructure, Sprout Fiber plans to expand broadband service into ten new areas and to 9,000 additional members in 2022 (see map below, with green areas live right now, with pink scheduled to go live early in 2022 and purple to follow thereafter. For a high-resolution version of the map, click here). Cullman Electric CEO Tim Culpepper told members:
Just a year after city leaders of Superior, Wisconsin (pop. 26,000) passed a resolution declaring fiber optic cabling critical infrastructure, officials are beginning to put the city’s money behind an action plan. In August, a majority of City Council members voted to adopt a plan to develop a city-owned fiber network and Superior Mayor Jim Paine proposed to reserve the bulk of the city’s American Rescue Plan federal relief funds to back the project.
The recent 8-2 City Council vote gave the green light to move forward with Connect Superior – a plan to construct open access, fiber optic broadband infrastructure reaching every resident, community anchor institution and business in the city.
As Mayor Paine plans to budget no less than $10 million of the city’s $17 million in Rescue Plan funds to finance the project, Superior’s legislative and executive officials are largely united
City Councilors’ adoption of the Master Plan is a significant step forward, even as there are still numerous motions the City Council will need to approve in order for municipal fiber to become a reality.
The next phase of the project involves designing and planning the network and hiring the contractors who will build it. City Council members will have to approve every contract with every consultant, design, and engineer firm along the way; as well as the Mayor’s American Rescue Plan budget in order to award the funds necessary to get the project rolling.
Even before the central Florida city of Ocala in Marion County became officially known as “The Horse Capital of the World,” the city – home to 61,810 Floridians and over 1,200 county-wide horse farms – was already galloping toward high-speed Internet connectivity. In recent years, the Ocala Fiber Network (OFN) has expanded into offering residential service, trotting carefully towards a citywide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) finish.
It began in 1995 with the Ocala municipal electric department upgrading its substation monitoring (SCADA) system, which has been estimated to have saved the city $25 million in networking costs since. Over the past two years, OFN has extended the network to bring affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet service to city residents, neighborhood by neighborhood.
While the municipal network has been providing high-speed Internet service for the past decade to area businesses, healthcare facilities, community anchor institutions, and schools throughout the county, OFN launched residential service in 2019 and is now serving 2,500 residential subscribers in four city neighborhoods.
“We did four pilot neighborhoods. Our target goal was to have a 30 percent take rate in each neighborhood. In the largest neighborhood (the Highlands neighborhood) with a thousand homes, we have a 42 percent take rate. We still have a challenge in one neighborhood (Happiness Homes) with about a 10 percent take rate that we think is mostly an educational challenge,” Ocala Fiber Network Director Mel Poole told us in a recent interview.
Since the passing of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act (TBAA) in 2017, the state has poured more than $100 million into connecting its most rural communities, and more than 20 electric cooperatives throughout the state have spent the last four years making their way into the broadband business.
Back in 2016 and 2017, Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC), along with many other electric cooperatives, advocated for the right to build fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks out to their memberships in the most rural parts of the state. When TBAA passed through the state legislature, removing major barriers for cooperatives to build out their own networks, SVEC got to work.
Today, 23 electric cooperatives in Tennessee have launched their own broadband projects, including SVEConnect, a broadband subsidiary of SVEC offering FTTH that has connected more than 4,400 members across Marion County.
From Electrification to Connectivity
SVEC was formed in 1939 to address the broad gaps in access to electricity throughout the rural areas surrounding Chattanooga, Tennessee in Bledsoe, Grundy, Marion and Sequatchie counties. When the cooperative was first established, the nonprofit’s leaders would frequent community events at churches and neighborhood gatherings, keeping their fingers on the pulse of community needs. The cooperative began offering an essential service: electricity.
Join us on Thursday, May 27 at 5pm ET/4pm CT with a special Financing Edition of the Connect This! show, with co-hosts Christopher and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) joined by Doug Dawson (President, CCG Consulting) and Kim McKinley (CMO, UTOPIA Fiber). The group will dive into the numbers and talk about the economics that make networks succeed. They'll talk about the different models to broadband buildouts, types of financing available to municipalities and small private ISPs, grant programs, the factors that drive healthy take rates, and economies of scale.
The show will begin on Thursday, May 27 at 5pm ET/4pm CT.
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As the oldest son of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie — the Town of Washington, Massachusetts’ most famous resident — built a name for himself as a singer-songwriter by letting folks know, “You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.”
But if you ask the town’s Broadband Manager Kent Lew, there was one thing that was not on the menu in Washington before last year: high-speed Internet connectivity.
That’s no longer the case as the small town of Washington (pop. 549) has been on the vanguard of rural communities in the hill towns of the Berkshires that have built out (or are in the process of building out) Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to bring gigabit speeds and affordable connectivity for residents for decades into the future.
The Pandemic: Curse & Blessing
“On the eve the Governor announced the (pandemic) shut down in March of 2020, our first Fiber Service Area was ready,” Lew recalled in a recent interview with us. “It was tremendous that we were able to do this just as people really needed it.”
As one of dozens of Western Massachusetts towns working in partnership with municipal utility provider Westfield Gas + Electric (which operates Whip City Fiber) to build broadband infrastructure, it was in 2015 that Town Meeting voters authorized a $770,000 bond issuance to finance half the construction costs of the $1.47 million network. The other half came from state grant funding.