Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Tombigbee Electric Power Association (TEPA) will become one of the first electric cooperatives in Mississippi to offer fast, reliable, affordable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to all of its 43,950 residential and commercial members. Made possible through the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act of 2019 (HB 366), TEPA anticipates having coverage to all of its members, mostly in Lee and Itawamba counties, in four years. TEPA recently announced that Conexon will design and manage construction of the network.
Change in Policy = Change in Possibilities
For more than 60 years, a Mississippi law had banned electric cooperatives from offering anything but electricity to their members. After pressure from the state Public Service Commission, Mississippi’s State Legislature passed HB 366 almost unanimously. The bipartisan legislation allows electric cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet access. Approximately two dozen electric cooperatives offer electric service in Mississippi. As a result, this single policy change has the potential to benefit roughly half of the state’s population.
When Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill into law in January 2019, he gave electric co-ops the lion's share of the credit for getting it through the legislature:
"This is a success for the Mississippi Legislature, for all those involved. If anyone wants to know how this bill got passed so quickly talk to the rural electric associations, because we do, and we listen to them."
Wheels in Motion
Alabama communities with lower population density haven’t attracted big national Internet access providers, but their electric cooperatives are increasingly picking up the slack. In recent months, yet another electric cooperative announced that “it’s about time” for Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) for members.
Members are Ready
With over 90 percent of members voting in favor, Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Cooperative (JWEMC) will soon be joining an increasing number of electric cooperatives providing access to broadband. JWEMC’s General Manager, George Kitchens, hopes to have the first customers connected by the fall of 2020 and all members on the network within five years. Kitchens notes that strong support from the community could expedite the timeline. Construction is expected to begin late next summer and the co-op will connect members in both Lawrence County and Morgan County.
“We have studied this internally for over a year,” he said. “We hope to have 18 substations and 1,000 customers hooked up in Year One, 3,800 customers in Year Two and between 3,000 and 5,000 annually Years Three through Five,” said Kitchens.
JWEMC has predicted it will need 10,000 subscribers to break even. Currently, folks in rural Lawrence County depend on satellite Internet access, while those who live in the more densely populated areas of Moulton (pop. 3,200) and Town Creek (pop. 1,100) may have access to AT&T DSL or cable Internet access from Charter Communications. Kitchens indicated that the network could be finished in three years, if demand is high and the cooperative can manage a rigorous construction schedule.
The Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) announced in January 2018 that they had solidified plans to deploy fiber across 14 counties for smart grid operations and to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to the region. The project, dubbed Firefly Fiber Broadband, is underway, and we’ve got President and CEO Gary Wood along with Communications and Member Services Manager Melissa Gay on the podcast this week to discuss the multi-year project.
During this interview, we learn about the CVEC service territory, which is a mix of a few denser populated areas and very rural communities where poor Internet access, when it’s available, is a real problem. CVEC members have been dealing with unreliable connections, oversubscription, and outdated technologies for years. Those problems will be eliminated, however, with FTTH from the co-op that many have come to trust. By obtaining grants, working with local communities, and approaching the process in a strategic manner, CVEC plans on bringing gigabit connections to about 37,000 potential subscribers within five years.
Gary and Melissa describe the cooperative’s process, the discoveries they made about attitudes toward the co-op from members in the community (including some interesting stories), and lessons learned. We hear about some of their marketing approaches that focus on the uniqueness of the region and what it was like to establish a subsidiary in accordance with state law. Through all the hard work, Melissa and Gary have nothing but accolades for employees of the cooperative and compliments for local officials who helped get the project off to a strong start.
Learn more about the status of project from CVEC.
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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.
Once again, restrictive state laws designed to help big ISPs maintain their monopolies have helped push a publicly owned network to privatization. Opelika, Alabama, recently announced that they will sell their OPS One fiber optic network to Point Broadband, headquartered in West Point, Georgia. They expect the deal to be finalized in early November.
The Road to Now
The city of Opelika installed the network to overcome poor services from Charter and to improve municipal electric services with smart grid applications. In 2010, Charter’s astroturf campaign to stop the network failed when local voters supported the ballot initiative to build the broadband infrastructure to allow the city to provide services. By 2014, Opelika Power Services (OPS) was making Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) available for residents and businesses; folks in the community were loving the service from Alabama’s “Gig City.”
Nearby communities still stuck with poor Internet access wanted OPS to serve them also and OPS wanted to add more subscribers, but state law prevents Opelika from expanding beyond their current coverage area. As in the case of Bristol, Virginia, when a state prevents a municipal network from growing and increasing revenue, the state makes it difficult for the network to remain sustainable.
Mayor Gary Fuller recently told WLTZ:
“We attempted on three occasions to get the legislature to [allow us to] expand beyond our city limits, into North Auburn and rural Lee County, Beauregard, and we could never do that because we couldn’t get the law changed.”
In May of 2017 we congratulated Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber for exceeding 90,000 subscribers and contributing to lower power rates for all (Electric Power Board) EPB customers. Now less than a year later, there is more to celebrate as EPB expects to reach 100,000 subscribers by Fall 2018 and is still lowering electricity costs for all customers.
The city-owned electric utility launched its citywide fiber optic network in 2009 and never looked back. The original plan issued nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in debt for the utility and had an estimated forecast for only 35,000 subscribers. The city is now reaping the rewards from its investment; the utility paid off the last of its debt earlier this year, and now projected revenues for the fiscal year 2018-2019 from the telecom division sit at $169.1 million.
For a detailed, interesting history on EPB Fiber Optics, take some time to listen to Harold DePriest talk with Christopher in episode 230 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Before retiring, Harold was the tip of the spear in bringing the network to Chattanooga.
While EPB has long been recognized for its lightning fast Internet speeds and has repeatedly been ranked among the fastest in the U.S. (including this year’s fourth fastest ISP in the United States), the utility’s fiber optic lines also help lower power rates for all customers by eight percent. Whether Chattanoogans subscribe to EPB Fiber for Internet access or not, they still benefit from the infrastructure.
Holston Electric Cooperative (HEC) in Hamblen and Hawkins County, Tennessee, is about to begin Phase I of its plan to deploy fiber optic connectivity to more than 30,000 members. The multi-year project will bring broadband to the rural area and create smart grid efficiencies for the electric system.
Wide Support for HolstonConnect
There’s been so much interest and so many inquiries about when members can sign-up, General Manager Jimmy Sandlin feels it’s important to ask folks in the service area to be patient and to understand that the build will be a long process. Construction will begin in Rogersville and will extend to South Surgoinsville.
“As HolstonConnect’s services will have less delay times than other products available in your market, the competition may encourage our members to lock themselves into new contracts. Be aware of this tactic, as this is your opportunity to help improve your neighborhood. Owned by the people served, HolstonConnect will connect our community to a great future, just like Holston Electric Cooperative brought rural residents into the future with electricity.”
Prices and a complete list of services have not been posted yet, but the cooperative plans to offer symmetrical gigabit service, voice, and video. In keeping with similar policies from other publicly owned networks, HEC has said there will be no throttling or data caps.
HEC has had plans in place for a while to deploy a smart grid to improve electric systems. As is the case with many other electric cooperatives, HEC decided to consider taking advantage of the infrastructure’s excess capacity as a foundation for fiber optic connectivity for local residents and businesses. In order to make the venture successful, however, they knew that they would need take rates of around 80 percent from members to make the project viable. The cooperative still needs to determine final estimates, but the initial figure for the entire project comes in at around $120 million.
Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) has created a five-year plan to deploy a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to premises within its distribution area. CVEC will begin with a one-year pilot program within a limited region in order to test and prepare for the wider initiative.
More Than Internet Access
CVEC’s plan for the new fiber infrastructure will include more efficient electrical operations across its entire distribution system. CVEC plans to install approximately 4,600 miles of distribution lines and offer services to all of its 36,000 members through a subsidiary. Because so many of its members live in rural areas, they don’t have access to high-quality Internet services. CVEC serves Albermarle County and portions of 13 other surrounding counties.
"CVEC believes that access to reliable, high-speed Internet today is becoming as important as access to electricity in 1937," said CEO Gary Wood. "Give the great need for connectivity, CVEC will leverage its fiber network to provide a broadband Internet solution that will serve the community now and for the future."
One look at the comments on the CVEC Facebook page reinforces the claim that CVEC’s members lack access to high-quality Internet service:
“You’re lucky to have DSL.”
“No Internet or cell service just two miles from the interstate has gotten old old old fast fast fast.”
“With an Internet bill over several hundred dollars a month for relatively crappy service, I will happily spend my money with someone who actually cares!”
“Shut up and take my money.”
Another Go At Access
Other plans to bring Internet access to members have fallen through. At a recent meeting that included the Albermarle County Broadband Authority and the Village of Rivanna Community Advisory Committee, Wood described two other failed attempts by CVEC that depended on partnerships with other entities. One involved delivering broadband over power lines and the other ended in an inability for the cooperative and its partner ISP to reach an agreement.
Approximately 30 miles separate Morristown and Newport, but the two are joining forces to better connect local businesses and residents as entrepreneurs take up residence in the region's newest high-tech work space.
An Incubator for Innovation in Morristown
SkyMart Venture Place is a new cooperative workspace stirring innovation in the quaint downtown district of Morristown.
Morristown was on the forefront of implementing city-wide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) back in 2006. Today their gigabit network MUS FiberNET is fostering innovation in this thriving co-working space and helping neighboring communities bridge their connectivity gaps. Lynn Wolfe explains that the new space has helped support her in the early stages of her business. “[SkyMVP] gives me a place—with super-fast internet—to come and do my internet marketing, and it has been very beneficial for that and being able to upload my training videos,” Wolfe said.
SkyMVP’s doors opened in August of last year and it’s become a hub for local entrepreneurs. The space allows members to hold workshops, rent office space, and network with other professionals.
Similar incubator projects are underway in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley and Indianola, Iowa. SkyMVP is yet another example of how gigabit connectivity can spur positive transformations for local communities. Morristown’s decision to invest in FTTH infrastructure is emboldening their local economy and potential for small business growth in the area is promising. Sky MVP has even begun offering a course for budding entrepreneurs and a handful of free workshops.
Expanding the 'Net in Newport
If you’re a regular reader at MuniNetworks.org, listen to our podcasts, or if you simply follow publicly owned network news, you know an increasing number of communities have decided to invest in local connectivity solutions in recent years. We’ve watched the number of “pins” on our community network map multiply steadily, but every now and then, a network drops off through privatization.
FastRoads Sold To N.H. Optical Systems
New Hampshire FastRoads received America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which combined with state funding, created the open access fiber optic network in the southwest section of the state. Over the next several years, the network expanded with private donations and local matching funds. Many of the premises that connected to the network had relied on dial-up before FastRoads came to town. But in part because state law makes bonding for network expansion difficult, Fast Roads will no longer be locally controlled.
The Monadnock Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a nonprofit organization whose purpose is working to see like projects are completed that will improve economic development prospects in the region managed the project. MEDC contracted with another entity to maintain the network, which cost approximately $15,000 per month. Since they had achieved their core goal - the construction and launch of the network - MEDC had been looking for another entity to take over the network or to partner with them. They recently finalized a deal to sell the network to New Hampshire Optical Systems.
Huntsville, Alabama, already has high-speed Internet service through Google Fiber, but the surrounding rural areas must look to their local cooperative for better connectivity. Tombigbee Electric Cooperative has started an ambitious Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project to eventually cover its entire service area over four counties in northwestern Alabama.
In a press release, Tombigbee Electric announced that their Freedom FIBER network will start providing Internet service in the towns of Hamilton and Winfield in September 2017. It’ll take about a year to get the new network to everyone in the designated build out area.
Much Needed Connectivity
Hamilton is the seat of Marion county with about 7,000 residents; 20 miles to the south, Winfield has a population of 5,000. As of June 2016, about 75 percent of the population in Marion County does not currently have access to FCC-defined 25 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speeds.
With Freedom FIBER, residents will have a choice between two tiers of Internet service: 100 Mbps for $49.95 per month or 1 gigabit (1,000 Mbps) for $79.95 per month. The co-op will also offer phone service for an additional $29.95 each month. The fiber network will be much more reliable than CenturyLink’s DSL network, which is currently the only choice in the towns.
An Incremental Plan