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Peppered by winding country roads and remote islands, Maine exemplifies the challenges in even deployment of affordable broadband. But thanks to tenacious island communities and forward-thinking state leadership, a growing roster of community-owned broadband networks are leading the charge toward affordable access in the Pine Tree State.
Peggy Schaffer, former executive director of the state of Maine's broadband mapping and expansion effort, ConnectMaine, has played a starring role in shoring up Maine’s broadband mapping data after years of federal dysfunction.
Schaffer’s well versed in the broad array of challenges faced by remote Maine communities, and says she’s long been impressed by the “scrappy” nature of Maine’s community-owned island deployments, which have faced down and overcome no limit of onerous challenges in an ongoing quest to finally bridge the state’s long standing digital divide.
Maine is currently ranked 49th in the U.S. in terms of resident access to gigabit-capable broadband service. Like so much of the country, the state is heavily dominated by regional monopolies that failed to uniformly deliver affordable, next-generation broadband, despite decades of federal subsidies, regulatory favors, and tax breaks.
Now local Maine communities are taking matters into their own hands, beginning with long-neglected island residents no stranger to unique logistical challenges.
‘It’s A Story Of Perseverance’
Martinsville, Virginia has technically owned a municipal fiber network for the better part of a generation. But the city never had the time, resources, or interest in maximizing the Municipal Internet Network’s (MINet) full potential until COVID demonstrated the importance of affordable access and federal broadband grants made expansion a viable reality.
At a Martinsville city council meeting on February 13, the council offered unanimous support for a phased expansion of the city’s fiber network.
What exactly the expansion will look like, and how it will be funded, very much remain a work in progress.
The core MINet fiber network originally consisted of 48 strands and 20 miles of fiber connecting city schools, municipal buildings, local businesses, and key anchor institutions. A 2009 estimate indicates the network has saved the city between $100,000 and $150,000 annually on telecom lease agreements every year since its inception.
Despite having been first constructed in the 1990s, Martinsville’s MINet only has about 376 customers (98 of them being residential) in a city of nearly 14,000 residents. There’s roughly 20 users currently on a multi-month waiting list, eager to get access to affordable fiber at speeds up to a gigabit per second (Gbps).
Mike Scaffidi has been the MINet director for 26 years. He tells ILSR that while the city has contemplated network expansion for a long time, the city never had the staff or resources to prioritize the expansion or marketing of the city-owned fiber network.
Ottawa County, Michigan officials say they’ve struck a new public private partnership (PPP) with 123Net on a $25 million fiber deployment that aims to bring more uniform – and affordable – broadband access to Michigan’s seventh largest county by population.
The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners voted last month to approve a master agreement and letter of intent with 123Net.
The finalized agreement calls for 123Net to spend two years deploying 400 miles of new fiber infrastructure as part of an open access, carrier neutral fiber network to bring new competition – and affordable fiber – to 10,000 county residents and businesses.
The $25 million network will be funded by $14 million from Michigan’s Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) grant program; $7.5 million from Ottawa County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, and $3.5 million in private funding from 123NET.
“We’re at an interesting time in broadband deployment as there are a number of unique funding programs that counties and municipalities can access,” said Chuck Irvin, Executive Vice President of 123NET, said in a statement. “123NET is proud to be part of this exciting project.”
At the same time, county officials say they’ve struck a separate deal with Tilson Technology to build new wireless towers to deliver fixed wireless service to an undetermined number of rural county residents for whom deploying fiber is cost prohibitive.
Eagle, Idaho is preparing to connect the first of the city’s 32,000 residents to a new, municipally-owned open access fiber network. The project, which the city says will take between five to 10 years to complete, is being heavily funded by federal grants, and aims to meaningfully boost broadband competition – and affordable access – citywide.
ISLR profiled Eagle’s efforts last year, noting that the $5 million initial downtown fiber loop was jump-started with the help of the city’s $6.7 million allotment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
Roughly 300 homes and 30 businesses should be able to connect to the network within the next six months, the city now says. More than 30 residential subdivisions are in the early deployment phase, and the project will expand steadily over the next decade, funded by revenues from existing subscribers and future state and federal grant opportunities.
Like countless American communities, Eagle suffers from a notable lack of competition between regional phone giant Lumen (formerly Centurylink, now operating under the Quantum brand), and regional cable company CableOne (under the Sparklight brand). That muted competition results in high prices, spotty access, slow speeds, and substandard customer service.
Enter Eagle’s open access fiber network, which will allow numerous ISPs to compete in layers, driving down market entry costs for providers and broadband access prices for consumers. City leaders say the aim is to offer symmetrical gig speed service for between $50 and $60 to residents, and $150 per month to local businesses.
Municipal finance is not for the weary.
But for the wise – at least according to the number-crunchers enmeshed in that world – one particular sliver of municipal finance (issuing bonds) has long been a viable way for local communities to finance the construction of municipal broadband networks. And as one Communication Union District in Vermont has discovered, bonding is better – when it’s rated.
Shining a light on bond-backed municipal broadband projects is the recent announcement that ECFiber, Vermont's first Communications Union District (CUD), obtained a BB rating from Standard & Poor Global, the nation’s preeminent credit rating agency. The rating will allow ECFiber to pay lower borrowing costs to complete a network expansion project.
“This is a historic moment,” Stan Williams, ECFiber’s municipal finance advisor said in a prepared statement. “For the first time, a CUD will be issuing a rated bond, which means that many more investors will be competing to buy those bonds, lowering the interest rate. ECFiber has been managed for its entire existence to reach this goal. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this achievement.”
East Central Vermont Telecommunications District governing board chairman F. X. Flinn added that the new bond rating "was made possible by over 16 years of grass-roots persistence, driven by a conviction that working together, our region could overcome the failure of the marketplace to offer decent broadband to all our homes and businesses."
Boulder, Colorado officials have issued a new request for proposal (RFP) seeking partners for their ongoing quest to deliver affordable fiber to the city of 104,000.
According to an announcement by Boulder leaders, the city is offering potential partners a long-term lease of city-owned dark-fiber backbone infrastructure and a right of way agreement for the construction and operation of a network delivering Internet service offering 1 Gbps or more to all Boulder homes and businesses. Responses are due by March 1.
When we last checked in with Boulder in April of last year, the city was putting the finishing touches on a $20 million, 65-mile dark fiber backbone, funded by the competitive sale of its 2018 Broadband Taxable Certificates of Participation (COPs). The competitive sale was used to ensure that Boulder could get the lowest interest rates possible in financing the construction of the backbone.
While the process was technically started back in 2018, and then delayed by the pandemic, city officials remained committed to moving the project forward.
“What we are trying to do in Boulder – if we can find the right partner or partners – is about creating more competition; increase the competitive marketplace locally,” project manager and independent consultant Tim Scott told ILSR last year.
Like so many U.S. communities, Boulder sees limited competition between the local cable company (Comcast) and the local phone company (Centurylink/Lumen) resulting in slow speeds, spotty coverage, high prices, and substandard customer service.
Created as part of New York’s billion dollar ConnectALL Initiative, the MIP is specifically designed to support municipal broadband projects, which have shown to be a viable, and increasingly popular, way to bring affordable, high-quality Internet service to an entire community.
New York is a notable exception to what most other states are doing as those states prepare to funnel the lion’s share of its federal broadband funds to the big incumbent providers with scant, if any, support for publicly-owned broadband projects. In New York – similar to states like Maine, Vermont, and California – state leaders are devoting a significant chunk of federal funds, all $228 million of its recent disbursement of Capital Projects Funds, to build publicly-owned, open access networks.
“Broadband infrastructure in the Municipal Infrastructure Program will be owned by a public entity or publicly controlled, and Internet Service Providers will use the new broadband infrastructure to provide New Yorkers with affordable, high quality service options,” the press announcement said.
Los Alamos County, New Mexico joins the growing list of municipalities looking to explore a community-owned broadband network in a bid to improve resident access to fast, affordable, next-generation fiber.
The request for proposal (RFP), originally issued August 13, called for design, planning, and construction partners for a locally-owned and operated fiber network. An updated RFP was issued on December 12, 2023 stating that applications for phase two of their planned project were deemed “incomplete.” The county has given potential partners until January 12 to respond.
“The county team is now reviewing the submitted proposals,” the county states. “Once one is selected and an agreement finalized, the county will request the council award a contract. This may occur in early 2024.”
The RFPs come after county council leaders passed a motion last January declaring “…that high-quality reliable telecommunication including broadband is an essential service.” Los Alamos County officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment asking for more detail on the county’s goals. Local outlets suggest more details should emerge in 2024.
New Mexico is poised to receive more than $635 million in broadband subsidies courtesy of the Broadband Equity Access and Development (BEAD) program, made possible in turn by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
New Municipal Broadband Networks Skyrocket in Post-Pandemic America As Alternative To Private Monopoly Model
As the new year begins, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) announced today its latest tally of municipal broadband networks which shows a dramatic surge in the number of communities building publicly-owned, locally controlled high-speed Internet infrastructure over the last three years.
Since January 1, 2021, at least 47 new municipal networks have come online with dozens of other projects still in the planning or pre-construction phase, which includes the possibility of building 40 new municipal networks in California alone.
Fiber Fusion: Navigating Municipal Fiber Networks with Traverse City Light and Power - Episode 583 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the first podcast of the year, Christopher speaks with Scott Menhart, the Chief Technology and Information Officer of Traverse City Light and Power. TCLP, a utility company, serves the 13,000 dedicated residents in Northwest Lower Michigan.
Chris and Scott discuss the history of the TCLP and the benefits of building a municipal fiber network for Traverse City, Michigan. They also discuss the role of fiber and how TCLP's use of it with supporting the electric grid led to them expanding its services over the years to include broadband internet access.
Despite the challenges they face from major companies, Chris and Scott conclude the conversation by emphasizing the importance of staying the course with proper planning with building small, successful broadband networks for their communities.
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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.