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broadband over power lines
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Concord, Massachusetts, has a strong literary history with famous authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and the Alcott sisters, but all puns aside, the town also has a long-standing community broadband network, Concord Light Broadband.
Years ago, the community voted to build its own network from their electric utility, and they have just now transitioned to high-speed fiber optics.
From Electric to Broadband
Concord is one of only forty Massachusetts municipalities with an electric utility and in the early 2000s, their electric thermal storage system needed an overhaul. The technology, based on the phone system’s network, was becoming obsolete. The electric utility chose to overbuild the existing system with fiber optics in order to create a smart-grid to automatically read electric meters. Concord recognized the opportunity presented by a fiber network backbone spread throughout town.
It only made sense to look at broadband options; the only thing left to do was to build out the last-mile, the section of network that connects to the home or business. They estimated the cost for the smart-grid and last-mile to be $4 million and would finance it through municipal bonds.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy of Big Incumbent Cable Companies
Large incumbent cable companies had not served the community well and the people wanted better connectivity. Massachusetts’ state law requires a town to vote at two consecutive town meetings to establish the authority to build a broadband network through the electric utility, commonly referred to as Municipal Light Plant or MLP. The MLP is the town department responsible for the transmission and supply of electricity to the residents and businesses in the town. As communities have started to develop their own municipal Internet networks, the MLPs have also taken on a similar role with regard to connectivity. After establishment of an MLP is approved, then the community votes again on funding for the initiative.
In 2003, the people of Concord began considering what they could accomplish with a municipal network, and they held the first vote at the Annual Town Meeting. The resolution passed by a 2/3rds majority vote. The second Annual Town Meeting was scheduled for April 2004.
Recently, we covered the city-owned fiber optic network in Princeton, Illinois. The network has been serving city facilities, schools, libraries, and businesses since late 2003. The network contributes to economic development by delivering high capacity telecommunications services at affordable prices to local businesses. The City built and owns the network but services are delivered by a private sector partner.
Princeton is also working to bridge the digital divide in its community. The city offers an inexpensive Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL) service to residents and small businesses, using the municipal electricial grid.
BPL was once touted as a great hope for rural connectivity. The technology allows users to send telecommunications over the electrical lines already in place across the country. After several deployments revealed problems with radio interference, performance issues, and unreliability, the great hope considerably dimmed. However, the technology still has its place.
BPL lives on in Princeton as a supplement to its fiber network. According to Jason Bird, Director of Utilities, subscribers like being able to access the Internet from any room in their home that has an electric outlet. Capacity is very limited - only 1 Mbps service for residential service - but the price is right for those who do not have a large demand for speed. Residential service is $24.95 per month and commercial service is $99.00 per month.
The technology was attractive to the city utility because it was economical and quick to install. Prior to the BPL network, most people in town still used dial-up. As we reported in our post on Princeton's fiber network, the city has forged a long relationship with IVNet, an Illinois ISP. The BPL network is another successful joint project that has been helpful to the community. The two shared the cost of constructing the BPL network and profits are shared with IVNet retaining 70% of the profits.