Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Hoping to leverage both a major new California broadband expansion initiative and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, Chico, California is moving forward with its plan to deliver affordable fiber broadband to historically-underserved city residents.
The Chico city council last year began exploring using $4.8 million of the city’s $22 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to build a citywide fiber network. After spending $250,000 to research its options, the city council voted last week to move forward with the plan.
City leaders hope the network will provide more reliable connectivity for the first responders battling historic wildfires in the region. But like many communities, Chico was also spurred to action by telecom market failure, a lack of competition among regional monopolies, and the slow speeds, spotty coverage, and high prices that routinely result.
“All of us have had experience with the existing incumbents and what we pay for versus what we get,” said Chico's Information Systems Manager Josh Marquis. “There's a lot of areas of our region that do not have access either through affordability gaps or through service gaps.”
Much like Fort Pierce, Florida, Chico will begin by running a pilot project first targeting lower income parts of the city like the Chapman Mulberry neighborhood. There, residents will be provided inexpensive access to symmetrical fiber either through the city or a partner, made cheaper still once the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) discounts are applied.
Since 1972, the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has provided gas, electric, water, and natural gas services to Fort Pierce, Florida and surrounding areas. Now, inspired by efforts in cities like Chattanooga, the utility hopes to leverage that expertise to deliver affordable fiber Internet access to the city’s 45,000 residents as part of a significant expansion of its internal fiber network.
Building on Its I-Net
Since the early 2000s, FPUA has deployed 110 miles of optical fiber via its FPUAnet Communications division. Initially, the project focused on bringing ultra-fast fiber broadband to large businesses, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions.
In 2018, the city decided to expand its footprint to boost the local economy and cement Fort Pierce’s future reputation as a smart city of the future. First by upgrading the company’s existing utility systems (connected to 30,000 existing customer energy meters), then by utilizing that access to drive expanded fiber connectivity to smaller business and residential customers alike.
“We wanted to look at what we can do, and what are the needs in the community,” Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager told me. “We have other local competition…Comcast, AT&T are competitors in the area. But in the realm of symmetrical speeds, no one really offers it.”
Fort Pierce certainly isn’t alone in that regard. Even the notoriously inflated FCC data indicates that most U.S. communities rarely have access to symmetrical speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and faster, and competition at those speeds is largely nonexistent. Addressing this market failure created an obvious business expansion opportunity for FPUANet that would not only bring additional value to its existing utility customers in the form of improved reliability and cost savings, but improve regional connectivity while keeping those dollars local
A year after a group of local broadband champions got together to see how they could improve Internet access in Missoula, Montana, the Missoula Valley Internet Cooperative has successfully raised funds and designed, deployed, and launched a wireless mesh network delivering 150 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service to more than 50 of 550 pre-registered households for, on average, $40-60/month. The community-owned option has injected some welcome competition to a stagnant local broadband market, with a second network already in the planning stages in a community to the north.
Both efforts are being driven by the Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance (PNWRBA), a Missoula, Montana-based nonprofit aiming to build resiliency, local capacity, and expand quality Internet access to the region by making use of a variety of community-oriented business models. The nonprofit serves not only to coordinate grassroots organizing efforts, but provide technical assistance and lead policy engagement with local leaders. It is running a dual mission. First, to bring faster and more affordable Internet access via a community-owned model to the area. And second, to prove out a series of models in the region with the hopes of generating additional community-based approaches to improving broadband in the region and beyond.
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.
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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When he was a colonel in the Virginia Militia, George Washington is said to have visited “Craig’s Camp,” a mountainous frontier outpost in southwest Virginia near the border of what would later become West Virginia. After the Seven Years' War, farmers and tradesmen were drawn to the area, establishing a settlement known then as “Newfincastle.” Over the years, the “fin” was dropped and the town became New Castle, the seat of Craig County.
Today – with the Jefferson National Forest comprising half of the county, its scenic byways, access to the Appalachian Trail, old churches, and family cemeteries – Craig County and the surrounding region remains steeped in early American history. And now, thanks to the Craig-Botetourt Rural Electric Cooperative (CBEC), this corner of rural Virginia has established a forward-looking outpost of Internet connectivity, and a new fiber frontier that planners hope to expand across the seven counties that make up CBEC’s 650 square-mile service area.
The Bee Online Advantage
It was in 2018 when CBEC began to seriously consider building a broadband network to serve its 6,800 members because, as the co-op’s website puts it: “Our members are experiencing what originally created the electric cooperative in 1936 – a lack of service. They lacked electricity  years ago; now they lack high-speed Internet [access].”
That lack of high-speed Internet connectivity is becoming a thing of the past, at least for co-op members in Botetourt County who now have access to an emerging Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service through a CBEC subsidiary known as the Bee Online Advantage.
Born in Orono, Maine, the poet Frances Laughton Mace’s most notable verses were published in 1854 as a hymn entitled “Only Waiting.” Over a century and a half later, residents in her native town – and in the neighboring community of Old Town just four miles up the road – might be inclined to hum a line or two. Not because they are getting religion, but because of the wait in getting Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet connectivity.
After a decade of hopeful planning, disappointing setbacks, design work, and putting out multiple RFPs to move the project forward, the nonprofit OTO Fiber Corporation is on the verge of lighting up a six-mile fiber network this summer. With three miles of fiber deployed in Orono, a town of 11,000 residents and home to the University of Maine’s flagship campus, and the other half covering a portion of Old Town, the budding network will provide FTTH service to a limited number of residences and businesses in both towns. It’s a pilot project that, if successful, will serve as a core network which can eventually be extended to cover the entirety of both communities.
“It’s taken us forever to get to this point it seems. We started this process ten years ago and we are still slogging our way through while we’ve seen other communities zip ahead,” Belle Ryder, Orono Assistant Town Manager and President of OTO Fiber, told us this week. “It is really, really, really hard for communities relying on volunteers to pull off the feat of building and operating these networks.”
Ryder wasn’t complaining or exasperated. She was just being candid about the process she and her colleagues at OTO Fiber are committed to see through to the finish. The slog she is referring to goes back a decade when Orono was in the process of putting together a comprehensive development plan.
Families and Fiber, Fits and Starts
With just about half of the town’s population made up of college students living in off-campus apartments and the other half made up of residents 60 and older, “we really needed to draw families back,” Ryder explained.
In the heart of Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the site of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln later delivered his famous 1863 Gettysburg address declaring “a new birth of freedom,” plans are being drawn up in the battle for better broadband.
In the borough of New Oxford, ten miles east of the county seat (Gettysburg), the non-profit media group Community Media of South Central Pennsylvania is leading the charge to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) victory for the approximately 102,000 residents spread out across the rural county’s 520 square miles.
But with restrictive state laws that protect incumbent providers from competition by not allowing municipalities to provide broadband service, and scarce funding for non-governmental entities to build broadband infrastructure, victory is far from certain.
Small Steps, Big Broadband Problem
The goal right now, Community Media’s Director of Operations Mark Wherley told us this week, is to secure $3 million to bring fiber access to 1,200 homes in New Oxford and Abbottstown, two of the 34 municipalities that make up Adams County, encircling Gettysburg.
Working in conjunction with the Adams County Economic Alliance, Community Media is looking to tap the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for funds to start building the network. Through RACP, Community Media would be eligible to receive between $1 million and $5 million, provided they are able to raise a 50 percent matching contribution.
The Talladega Superspeedway isn’t the only place in Alabama showcasing blazing fast speeds. A little more than an hour north of the famed NASCAR venue, the Cullman Electric Cooperative is racing to build a new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, bringing gig-speed Internet connectivity to the cooperative’s 44,000 member-owners spread out across Cullman, Winston, Morgan, and Lawrence counties in the north-central part of the state.
In June 2020, Cullman Electric Co-op officials waved the green flag, announcing the start of network construction for Sprout Fiber Internet. Seven months later, having hung 120 miles of the mainline fiber ring, Sprout Fiber’s first paying customer went online in Berlin, the first town in the cooperative’s service area to be connected to the fiber network.
“This truly is a historic moment, much like when the first residents in the region received electricity. This technology carries the same potential to improve the quality of life for our members,” Cullman Electric Cooperative CEO Tim Culpepper told The Cullman Times as the 85-year-old electric cooperative began connecting customers with a need for high-speed Internet service.
‘Crazy Fast’ Game Changer
Alabama State Representative Randall Shedd (R-Fairburn), who helped advance legislation allowing electric cooperatives to provide Internet services to its members, called Sprout Fiber “a game changer for our area, economically.”
Less than seven months has passed since the city of Anacortes, Washington (pop. 17,000) connected the very first subscriber in a pilot project for its municipal network. In the interim, thousands of households have signed up, construction continues at full-steam, and local officials are looking forward to years of providing fast, affordable, reliable service to those living on Fidalgo Island.
Five Years in the Making
We’ve been following Anacortes since 2015, when the city first began discussing the issue, watching as as local leaders and stakeholders assessed community needs, the state of broadband in the area, and options available to them, and much has changed. Read through our previous coverage if you’re interested in how things unfolded, but by the early part of 2019 the city had decided to pass on the other options and build, maintain, and operate the network themselves.