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Five small towns in rural Maine are connecting with one another in a steady grassroots effort to expand broadband access in the Midcoast. After conducting a survey which affirmed the towns’ acute need for better connectivity, a local coalition is navigating state funding and weighing network options.
In Waldo County, a collection of local officials and community volunteers have formed the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition (SWCBC) to organize efforts to bring broadband to five towns in rural Maine, clustered about 30 miles east of Augusta. Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont combined have only 3,300 houses along 340 miles of road. The need for better Internet access became particularly visible during the pandemic, as local officials tried to convene online for Selectmen’s meetings. Two selectpersons from neighboring towns connected over this shared need for access, and the coalition grew from there.
Nonprofit Alleghenies Broadband is leading a cohesive effort across a six-county region in south-central Pennsylvania to bring high-speed Internet access to areas that are unserved or underserved by reliable networks.
Part of its work is a recently completed Request for Proposals (RFP) in search of forming a series of public-private partnerships to help identify target areas and offer robust solutions to bring new infrastructure to the businesses and residents who need it most. As that process continues to unfold, however, the nonprofit is already working with city and county leaders to pursue a range of wireline and fixed wireless options that will result in better service and publicly owned infrastructure.
A Regional Approach
Formed in October 2020, Alleghenies Broadband is part of the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission. By coordinating efforts in six counties (Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, and Somerset, collectively representing about 500,000 residents), it hopes to address the broadband gaps scattered across the region. Somerset, Fulton, and Huntingdon seem to be in the worst shape at present: while many residents have access to cable service, large swaths of the counties are stuck with DSL or satellite service only, leading to median download speeds of just 3.7-8 Megabits per second (Mbps) (see Fulton and Huntingdon coverage maps below, with satellite-only areas in grey). The remaining three counties also have significant gaps where no wireline access is available, representing thousands of households with poor or no service.
Plagued by Bad Service, Eastern North Carolina Mayors Petition State Legislature to Let Them Build Municipal Networks
The mayors of nine cities in eastern North Carolina have had enough of Suddenlink's poor service. WRAL reports that they've called on the state legislature to overturn HB 129 and let them build their own networks after years of unreliable connectivity:
“[HB 129] forbade any kind of municipality from establishing broadband as one of their utilities,” Rocky Mount mayor Sandy Roberson said.
Roberson said Internet service in Nash and Edgecombe counties had been a problem for years.
There have been so many complaints against the area’s major provider, Suddenlink, since the COVID-19 pandemic began that the mayor of Tarboro called for the state Attorney General to investigate the company in January.
Months later, area leaders have started to take matters into their own hands, with the mayors of nine cities across Eastern North Carolina petitioning the state legislature to allow them to set up their own fiber networks.
The call to action comes on the heels of the mayors of Tarboro, Rocky Mount, New Bern and Washington calling on the state Attorney General to investigate the company.
Head over to WRAL to read the whole story.
Welcome to In Our View, the first installment of a new series here. From time to time, we'll use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.
The disaster in Texas resulting from an electric grid that was deliberately left exposed and likely to fail in rare cold weather events has received a lot of dramatic coverage, as well it should given the loss of life and damage to so many homes and businesses. It also raised some questions in my mind regarding competition and designing markets that will be discussed below. Texas was a leader in allowing different electricity firms to compete in selling electricity over the same electric grid, an arrangement that has some similarities to open access broadband approaches.
In digging into that recent electricity history, I made another interesting and relevant finding that I discuss first as part of the background to understand the lessons from Texas. In 20 years of competing models between, on the one hand, municipal and cooperative structures to deliver electricity and, on the other hand, a largely deregulated and competitive market, the munis and co-ops delivered lower prices to ratepayers.
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Electricity Deregulation, Texas Style
More than 20 years ago, Texas largely deregulated electricity markets. Residents still have a monopoly in charge of the physical wire delivering electricity to the home, but they could choose among various electricity providers that would effectively use the wire and charge different amounts, differentiating themselves via a variety of factors, including how the electricty was produced.
For communities across the country considering whether to invest in building a municipal broadband network, a new study published last week on the economic value of the EPB fiber network in America’s first “gig city” is a must-read.
The independent study, conducted by Bento Lobo, Ph.D., head of the Department of Finance and Economics at the Rollins College of Business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, found that the celebrated city-owned fiber network has delivered Chattanoogans a $2.69 billion return on investment in its first decade.
In 2010, EPB Fiber, a division of Chattanooga’s city-owned electric and telecommunications utility formerly known as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, became the first city in the United States to build a Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network offering up to 1 Gig upload and download speeds. In 2015, EPB began offering up to 10 Gig speeds.
It cost approximately $220 million to build the network, however, “the true economic value of the fiber optic infrastructure for EPB’s customers is much greater than the cost of installing and maintaining the infrastructure,” Lobo said. “Our latest research findings show that Chattanooga’s fiber optic network provides additional value because it provides high speeds, with symmetrical uploads and downloads, and a high degree of network responsiveness which are necessary for the smart grid and other cutting-edge business, educational and research applications.”
Among the study’s key findings:
This week Christopher brings together Doug Dawson (Owner and President, CCG Consulting), Monica Webb (Head of Marketing Development and Strategic Partnerships, Ting) and returning guest Travis Carter (CEO, US Internet).
The group first discusses Low-Earth Orbit satellite Internet access in the context of SpaceX’s Starlink public beta launch, and what it means for connecting unserved Americans in both urban and rural areas. Then, they dig into the future of cable as a wireline broadband technology, with frank talk about its longevity in the face of fiber as the industry begins talking about the penetration of DOCSIS 3.1 and future moves to DOCSIS 4.0. Finally, Christopher, Doug, Monica, and Travis spend time tackling the question of why we don’t see more small, private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) doing fiber projects in urban areas. They debate, for instance, Right-of-Way issues and the problem of access to capital.
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Planning, designing, building, and maintaining a community broadband network involves a host of complicated technical, financial, and operational tasks, but being successful also requires having a game plan for marketing.
FairlawnGig, Ohio’s municipal network for the town of 7,500 just north of Akron, is succeeding at the latter during the ongoing public health crisis. It has added a section to its website called Pandemic Positives, highlighting the stories of residents who have, like so many of the rest of us, been forced to move the bulk of our lives online. "In the year of social distancing," FairlawnGig introduces the stories, "work-from-home, and remote learning, we’re thrilled to bring you and your household the robust Internet service you need. FairlawnGig provides the bandwidth that to support all your needs, even the unanticipated ones, like a pandemic. As necessity is the mother of invention, we’re looking at 2020 as a chance to take lemons and make lemonade."
The network shares a collection of testimonials from users:
FairlawnGig has been a life saver during the pandemic. Both my husband and I are still working from home and each of us have at least three devices running at once. I’m a teacher at Forest Hill CLC and I can run 2-3 class meetings at the same time with my students while my husband is able to complete his meetings and work with no lag at all from the WiFi. We’re very happy to have this FairlawnGig!
There’s a new Thor in town, but instead of lighting up the night sky like the Norse god of thunder, it’ll be lighting up communities in rural Colorado with fiber optic connectivity.
A group of local governments and private partners, led by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), recently completed the first phase of Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network that will enable better connectivity in the participating towns, cities, and counties. The network, owned by NWCCOG, provides backhaul to local governments looking to connect public facilities, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. It’s also available to Internet service providers (ISPs) to serve residents and businesses.
Project THOR brings much needed redundancy to the region’s broadband infrastructure, where previously a single fiber cut could take entire communities’ health and public safety services offline. It also promises great cost savings for localities and ISPs. Perhaps most importantly, the new network gives communities the necessary leverage to improve local connectivity beyond begging the incumbent providers for better broadband. Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG explained on Community Broadband Bits episode 406:
This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect local service, however they can do that, with whatever partners come to the table . . . They’re able to actually act.
Building Toward a Network
NWCCOG, which is composed of member governments in and around Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin, and Summit Counties, coordinated broadband efforts in the region even before Project THOR began. A number of years ago, the council invested in a regional plan and hired a broadband coordinator, Nate Walowitz, to offer technical assistance to the member governments.
Heroic Partners Bring Middle Mile Fiber to Northwest Colorado With Project THOR - Community Broadband Bits Episode 406
The breathtaking mountains of northwest Colorado have long attracted skiers and hikers, but broadband providers haven't found the region's rugged landscape and sparse population as appealing. Enter Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network developed out of a collaboration among local governments and private companies led by the Northwest Colorado Council of Goverments (NWCCOG). Over the last few years, the partners strung together more than 400 miles of fiber to provide reliable and affordable backhaul to municipal facilities, public schools, healthcare systems, and Internet access providers.
This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG, and Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for network operator Mammoth Networks, to learn more about the recently completed project. Jon describes past broadband efforts in the region that led into Project THOR. The pair explain how the new middle mile network will allow localities to connect municipal facilities and anchor instutions and how broadband providers or the communities themselves can build off the network to serve residents and businesses. This will improve broadband reliability and affordability in the region, which had previously been plagued by network outages that cut access for hospitals and 911 calls.
Jon and Evan also discuss how the partners lowered project costs by leveraging existing infrastructure. They share some of the challenges involved in designing a network with so many partners. At the end, Jon explains how Project THOR will give communities more opportunities to take action on local connectivity instead of just impatiently waiting for better broadband.
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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.
Last week, Frontier Communications told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that there are 17,000 census blocks in which it is now offering 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. This means well over 400,000 Americans now live in areas no longer eligible for the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program to expand rural broadband. The first phase will auction off up to $16 billion in subsidies later this year.
In the filing, the company also identified census blocks where it believes other providers will deploy broadband access through state-funded programs, making those locations ineligible for the federal funds as well.
Frontier is Flailing