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The Straight Talk About Rural Fiber Deployments - Episode 517 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Joseph Franell, President of Blue Mountain Networks (which serves more than 30 rural communities west of Portland) in Oregon. Joe joined the team at Ashland Fiber Network (AFN) before moving on to do work in rural parts of the state. During the conversation, Christopher and Joe talk about building fiber in some of the least-dense parts of the state. They discuss the importance of creativity and a willingness to pursue a variety of partnership models, the critical role that local broadband champions play in convincing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to come to rural areas, and how dramatically different a provider looks when it's driven by principles and a commitment to the community that goes beyond a lightning-fast return-on-investment.
They dive into the specter of private equity, which has shown increasing interest in broadband infrastructure and the grassroots work done by broadband action teams over the last couple of years.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Ashland, Oregon has long been a trailblazer in terms of meeting community demand for faster, more affordable broadband access.
The city-owned network has also had a bumpy road—at times being branded as an example of municipal broadband failure. But the network continues to grow as it faces down an urgently-needed pivot toward a fiber-based future.
Despite the current economic healthiness of the network and the clear benefits it’s brought to the community over the last 20 years, local officials are talking about divesting instead of making the financial commitment to continue the investment the city has already made.
The community-owned Ashland Fiber Network (AFN) was first developed in the late 1990s by locals angry at the high prices and historically terrible customer service by the local cable company. Like so many community broadband alternatives, it was a network built from grassroots frustration at consolidated market failure.
Benefits of the community networks were on stark display during the telecommuting and home education boom of the Covid-19 crisis, when the city announced it would be providing free 30 Mbps broadband to all city residents without access to the Internet.
AFN is an open access network, meaning that numerous companies are allowed shared access to the core city network, delivering a variety of broadband, phone, and TV services. As a result, the network’s no-contract broadband pricing tends to be simpler and less expensive than options found in cities dominated by one or two private sector telecom monopolies.
Ashland, Oregon, home to Ashland Fiber Net (AFN), may soon be taking aggressive steps to bring more online business to the community. According to an Ashland Daily Tidings article, the City Council is seeking public input into proposed goals for the community. A targeted effort to bring more Internet-based businesses to town is one of the draft goals. The goal seems logical for a community with a network already in place.
AFN serves about 6,000 business and residential customers in this community of 20,000 people. In addition to AFN's retail services, four other local ISPs operate on the infrastructure.
The network is HFC, a cable network, but with far fewer homes on each local loop than the big cable companies typically have. This means that subscribers are far more likely to consistently achieve advertised speeds. Residential services range from $35 per month for 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps service to $75 monthly for 20 Mbps / 5 Mbps. AFN is one of the rare community-owned networks to enforce monthly data caps.
Fiber to the business is an option, but popular business packages are $65 per month for 15 Mbps / 4 Mbps and $85 per month for 25 Mbps / 5 Mbps. AFN also offers rural wireless service to a limited area.
Ashland also sees some common sense advantages to increasing the number of small home based businesses that use its fiber resource. To that end, AFN provides a "Home Office" business Internet package. From the article:
Councilor Greg Lemhouse has championed the goal to increase the number of Internet-based businesses.
"It's an aggressive goal that says the city is committed to growing this industry," he said.
Lemhouse said many such businesses can be operated out of people's homes.People who want to run Internet-based businesses often are well educated and are committed to their communities, he said.
Home Internet businesses can also be family-friendly, allowing parents to work from home and stay connected to their children, Lemhouse said.
With the discussion also comes some analysis of what sort of Internet businesses are already keeping shop in town. Also from the article:
From the Executive Summary (stats from 2005): The attention of policymakers in both parties is now focused on the question of how to promote competitive broadband markets that will deliver high-speed Internet access to all Americans at affordable rates. It is a difficult problem. Present estimates are that around 30% of US households subscribe to DSL or cable modem service. This compares to over 70% in countries like South Korea. Virtually every rural state remains underserved and uncompetitive. In urban areas, many families are priced out of the market. The telecom and cable kings of the broadband industry have failed to bridge the digital divide and opted to serve the most lucrative markets at the expense of universal, affordable access. As a result, local governments and community groups across the country have started building their own broadband networks, sometimes in a purely public service and more often through public-private partnerships. The incumbents have responded with an aggressive lobbying and misinformation campaign. Advocates of cable and DSL providers have been activated in several state capitols to push new laws prohibiting or severely restricting municipalities from serving their communities. Earlier this year, Verizon circulated a “fact sheet” to lawmakers, journalists and opinion leaders proclaiming the so-called “failures” of public broadband. Many of the statistics come from a widely discredited study of municipal cable TV networks published in 1998. This paper debunks these lies case by case, juxtaposing information direct from the city networks with quotations from the telco propaganda. The results are unequivocal and damning.