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Phase Two for Rock Falls
After finishing its first phase of broadband build out covering businesses and industrial parks, Rock Falls, Illinois, will begin focusing on residential customers in early 2019. While residents living close to business areas will have early access to the gigabit fiber network, the city of 9,000 will use the fiberhood approach to reach its remaining residential areas.
Growing a Gigabit City
The plan to invest in citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) began taking shape when Rock Falls residents became increasingly frustrated with the incumbent cable provider Comcast. Mayor Bill Wescott called for support for the project during his 2017 State of the City address, saying “The time is now to advance Internet in Rock Falls.” Later in April, the City Council approved the use of a $5.3 million general obligation bond issuance to fund the first phase of the build out, and an overall cap of $13 million for the duration of the project. The estimated cost of the project ended up being significantly reduced because the Rock Falls Electric Department (RFED) had already installed extra fiber-optic cable to connect substations as early as 2004.
By using GO bonds to finance their infrastructure deployment, Rock Falls departs from the typical funding approach. Most municipalities issue revenue bonds or employ interdepartmental loans and money they've saved from avoided costs when ending expensive leased lines to telecommunications companies. In recent years, other methods of funding fiber optic build outs have become increasingly popular as broadband infrastructure has obtained utility status in local communities.
Rock Falls: The Future Is In Fiber
The community of Rock Falls, Illinois, is well on its way to developing a gigabit municipal network to offer better connectivity to residents, businesses, and public facilities. Last week, the City Council adopted an ordinance that allows the city to issue general obligation bonds to fund citywide fiber-optic Internet infrastructure.
The city’s plan will expand first in business corridors and then use the fiberhood approach in residential areas, building only after a certain percentage of households preregister. The plan divides the city into 14 fiberhoods with each area’s build out cost estimated to be approximately $250,000. Residential fiberhoods will require 45 percent participation prior to construction. Consultants estimate citywide buildout costs will be $13 million; the City Council authorized bonding for that amount. The first bond issue will be $4.1 million likely to happen in early May if approval proceeds as planned.
The City Council authorized the first phase of the project to begin - network design and project administration - which will cost approximately $207,000. The process to issue GO bonds will start in March and city leaders hope to have the backbone completed by the end of June.
Most publicly owned Internet infrastructure is funded by revenue bonds, avoided costs, or interdepartmental loans rather than GO bonds. When funded by general obligation bonds, a project is backed by the credit and taxing power of the issuing jurisdiction and the resource is always publicly owned. Clearly, the community of Rock Falls recognizes how critical the investment is to the community's future.
From The Mayor
In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bill Wescott focused on three factors that drove the initiative: growth, the city’s strong finances, and local control.
While it’s common knowledge that economic development needs better connectivity than what is now available in Rock Falls, Wescott noted that residents stuck with 10 - 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) download Internet access need and deserve higher capacity connectivity to participate in the modern economy. He defined “growth” broadly, encompassing jobs, education, innovation, public safety, and government.
Rock Falls Residents Next In Line For Fiber? Maybe...
About a year ago, we reported that Rock Falls, Illinois, had decided to develop a fiber network to offer connectivity to local businesses. Now, the town of less than 10,000 is closer to expanding that network to offer Gigabit Internet access and voice to residents.
Considering Expanding Services
In September, community leaders began considering the expansion after consultants suggested investing in Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) as the best way to make use of the city’s resources. They offered a “fiberhood” option so Rock Falls Electric Department could connect new subscribers incrementally; they suggest starting with business corridors where many commerical entities are already taking service. The fiberhood approach requires people in specific areas of the city to sign up first, then after a certain percentage of the households committ, construction begins.
Rock Falls began planting fiber and conduit in the 1990s and have connected the municipal electric utility substations, schools, and other municipal facilities. They have also leased out excess capacity to private providers who want to offer connectivity to commercial customers in prior years.
Funding - It's Complicated
The fiber backbone is already in place but a complete citywide FTTH system will cost approximately $13 million, estimate consultants. After consulting bonding professionals, city leaders discovered that they needed to consider a few issues before deciding how to proceed. SaukValley.com reported on the financing discussion:
“We need either a feasibility study or our most recent audit that includes revenues from the broadband business to show we can make our bond payments,” [City Administrator Robin] Blackert said. “But a new feasibility study would cost us between $60,000 and $80,000, and we have no past revenue history with the new utility.”
Rock Falls to Expand Business Fiber Network
The community of Rock Falls, Illinois, recently decided to move ahead with a project to develop a municipal broadband utility, reports SaukValley.com. At a City Council meeting in early December, members unanimously voted to accept the findings of a feasibility study and move on to develop a formal business plan and preliminary engineering design. From the article:
Alderman Glen Kuhlemier said the table has been set for this project, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of what has already been done.
"To go backward is untenable after the foresight of the past," Kuhlemier said.
Rock Falls has an advantage because it already has substantial fiber resources in place. In the 1990s, the municipal electric utility installed fiber to connect substations. Thinking of the future, the electric utility installed ample fiber, which will significantly reduce the cost and burden to establish a network for business connectivity.
Rock Falls is no stranger to improving local connectivity. In the past, they used excess capacity to connect the city's schools and municipal facilities, reported American Public Power Magazine in 2010. The electric utility partnered with Essex Telecom, an ISP located in nearby Sterling, leasing some of their excess capacity to Essex so they could serve commercial customers.
The plan proposed by consultants would expand the network to connect half of the 350 businesses in the community. The consultanting firm estimates the deployment would cost $700,000 and the city would break even in 7 years.
Rock Falls, population approximately 9,200, is located on the Rock River in the northwest corner of the state; Sterling is immediately across the river. The community's municipal electric utility uses the river to generate hydroelectric power and customers pay rates 10-30% lower than those offered by neighboring investor-owned and cooperative utilities.
In recent years, the population has started to decline. Community leaders intend to jumpstart economic development with the added investment in fiber infrastructure.