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Amidst Fire Season, Chico, California Devotes Relief Funds to Improve Citywide Communications
During fire season in Northern California - when the sky often turns dusky with smoke in the middle of the day and the air quality can get so bad that officials declare it unhealthy to be outdoors - access to high-speed Internet connectivity is all-important.
For local governments, fast, reliable, and resilient Internet service is crucial for public safety communications. When flames engulf the region, relaying critical emergency information with speed is paramount. Seconds matter. It’s equally important for citizens to get timely information on the course of wildfires, receive alert notifications or evacuation orders, and be able to connect with friends and family.
Living in that reality is one of the driving reasons the Chico City Council recently voted to earmark $5 million of the city’s $22 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to research and implement a plan to improve citywide Internet access.
City council members have already authorized spending $250,000 of the funds to develop a Broadband Master Plan in conjunction with EntryPoint Networks. The plan is projected to be completed by October, and once it is finished the City Council will decide where to go from there.
City officials are also in the process of surveying the city’s 115,000 residents to gauge community interest in building a municipally-owned open access fiber network. Responses to the survey so far have indicated residents are excited about the potential of a municipal broadband offering, the city’s Administrative Services Director, Scott Dowell, told ILSR in a recent interview. Dowell said he’s noticed three recurring themes in the survey responses to date: “They want it to be reliable, inexpensive, and fast.”
Although no plans have been finalized and the city is open to various approaches to improve Internet access, Dowell said the city’s lofty goal is to enable symmetrical gigabit Internet service to all premises in Chico for a monthly access fee of no more than $100.
Improving Emergency Communications in the Face of Forest Fires
Durango's Dark Fiber Fosters Wi-Fi Freebie
Last fall, Durango joined a number of other Colorado communities that voted to reclaim local telecommunications authority. This January, the city began using its fiber resources to partner with a private provider and offer free Wi-Fi along the downtown corridor.
The move is one step in the city's plan to optimize use of its fiber resources. At the moment, Wi-Fi appears to be the center point of that plan, with special attention focused on increasing competition so residents and businesses will benefit with lower prices and more choice. From a January article in the Durango Herald:
Some rural residents with slow Internet also should have more service options by the end of the year, courtesy of CenturyLink, SkyWerx, AlignTec and BrainStorm.
“A lot of people are working on it. ... In certain geographies we’re going to see overlapping solutions,” said Roger Zalneraitis, director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
Durango has leased dark fiber for over 20 years and operates its own I-Net for municipal and La Plate County facilities. The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCCOG) has been developing an open access regional fiber network since 2010, funded through local communities and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The SWCCOG is now working with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance to determine if and where there are gaps in the fiber network.
Due to the expense of fiber optic lines, the difficult topography, and the remote locations of some La Plata county residents, community leaders are looking at microwave wireless as a way to deliver Internet access to a number of people.
Local video on the Wi-Fi install:
Island Community Builds Their Own Network: Coverage in Ars and Video From The Scene
Island living has its perks - the roar of the waves, the fresh breeze, the beauty of an ocean sunset - but good Internet access is usually not one of them.
A November Ars Technica article profiles Orcas Island, located in Washington state. Residents of the island's Doe Bay chose to enjoy the perks of island living and do what it took to get the Internet they needed. By using the natural and human resources on the island, the community created the nonprofit Doe Bay Internet Users Association (DBIUA). The wireless network provides Internet access to a section of the island not served by incumbent CenturyLink.
DBIUA receives its signal from StarTouch Broadband Services via microwave link from Mount Vernon on the mainland. Via a series of radios mounted on the community's water tower, houses, and tall trees, the network serves about 50 homes with speeds between 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 40 Mbps upload. Residents who had previously paid CenturyLink for DSL service were accustomed to 700 Kilobits per second (Kbps) download except during busy times when speeds would drop to 100 Kbps download and "almost nothing" upload.
Outages were also common. In 2013, after a 10-day loss of Internet access, residents got together to share food and ideas. At that meeting, software developer Chris Sutton, suggested the community "do it themselves."
The talent to make the project successful came forward to join the team. In addition to Sutton's software expertise, the island is home to professionals in marketing, law and land use, and a former CenturyLink installer. The network went live in September 2014 and is slowly and carefully expanding to serve more people.
Doe Bay realized that they could solve the problem themselves. Ars quoted Sutton:
Just waiting around for corporate America to come save us, we realized no one is going to come out here and make the kind of investment that’s needed for 200 people max.
More Feasibility Studies in Colorado and Ohio
Two more communities in Ohio and Colorado are seeking information through broadband feasibility studies.
The Aspen Daily News recently reported that Pitkin County has already completed phase one of its feasibility study. This past spring the primary Internet path coming into Aspen via CenturyLink fiber was severed causing widespread outage for 19 hours. The first half of the feasibility study sought ways to introduce a redundant path.
The first option was a 100 percent fiber solution and a hybrid fiber/microwave solution was proposed as an alternative. For option A, the consultants recommended a fiber backbone along Highway 82 with fiber lines running into Redstone, Marble, and Snowmass. Microwave could serve nearby Fryingpan Valley. Option B would travel the same route but make more use of microwave.
Early cost estimates:
Estimated operating costs for option A would be more than $122,000 per year, while option B would cost just over $92,000 annually. Yearly maintenance costs for the fiber-only model were projected at just under $62,000, and the hybrid model would run more than $123,000.
A survey or residents in several communities in Pitkin County indicated most are not happy with speeds or reliability of current Internet access. Approximately half of the region does not have broadband as defined by the FCC at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
[One of the consultants] said that according to the survey, customer satisfaction in the area is “significantly low.” It also noted that 34 percent of responders said they run a business out of their home, and an additional 10 percent replied that they will start up an in-house business within the next three years.
Adams relayed that more than half of respondents felt that the county should build some sort of “state-of-the-art communications network.”
“It’s clear that the residents would like to see the county do something,” he said.
Wireless, Fiber, the Speed of Light, and Wall Street
But microwave networks can be faster than their fiber-optic counterparts. Signals shot in a straight line between microwave dishes within sight of each other don't have to negotiate the mountains, buildings and other obstacles that lengthen the trip by cable. Because of their height, cell towers are prime locations for the dishes. On the downside, microwave networks are less reliable than cables, because signals can be disrupted by bad weather and other interference. They also can't carry as much information.So I figured this was a good weekend story because of the wireless/fiber angle but also because it is a reminder that Wall Street invests narrowly for its benefit. Extracting value from the market by having a 1 millionth of a second advantage over everyone else provides no value for the rest of us. This is not a system that is rationally allocating capital, it is a system that allows vampires to suck the life out of us. And that is a very good reason to find ways of being self-reliant.