Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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As they look back over their accomplishments, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) has more than the holidays to celebrate at the close of 2018. In addition to stimulating competition in the region, the RVBA network is attracting more investment and helping local nonprofits operate more efficiently.
For Feeding America Southwest Virginia in Salem, connectivity from RVBA is critical. “Without that Internet connection reliability, it would be very difficult for us to achieve our mission,” says IT Director Eric Geist. The food bank is one of the enterprise customers that the RVBA serves in the region, providing affordable access to organizations and institutions such as nonprofits, businesses, and institutions.
By providing affordable connectivity and services focused on the needs of businesses, the RVBA network has helped drive competition in the region. According to CEO Frank Smith’s research, prices have dropped 25 - 30 percent. The change squares with the RVBA mission to enhance and promote economic development by improving connectivity services and prices in Salem, Roanoke, and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt. They've seen results in the past three years with greater expectations ahead.
Before the network, the valley was caught in a connectivity “donut hole.” The populations in Salem and Roanoke had access to some cable Internet access and were large enough to prevent the region from obtaining grants to entice providers to upgrade. In 2013, local governments decided to work together to improve connectivity and funded a feasibility study, which recommended an open access network.
The mayor doesn’t usually show up at your house when you switch to a new Internet service provider, but for Erin and Isaac Herman of Centennial, Colorado, that’s exactly what happened. In early September, they became the first official Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) subscribers in Centennial when Internet service provider (ISP) Ting connected their home with fiber optic lines. An event held at their house brought together community members and local officials to celebrate the “lighting” of the fiber line, a culmination of years of hard work by the city to develop a publicly owned dark fiber network.
To provide Internet access, Ting leases strands of Centennial’s open access fiber network, constructing its own lines to connect homes and businesses to that backbone. The Herman family and other subscribers now have superior connectivity as a result of the investments made by both their local government and the private company.
Plans for households range from 5 Megabits per second for $19 per month to symmetrical gigabit speeds for $89 per month. Centennial residents can pre-order on Ting’s website.
Fifth “Ting Town” on the Map
Ting operates fiber networks in five U.S. cities. In addition to Centennial, Ting delivers fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to subscribers in Charlottesville, Virginia; Holly Springs, North Carolina; Sandpoint, Idaho; and Westminster, Maryland.
Nestled along the south eastern border of Maine are Baileyville and Calais. As rural communities situated next to Canada in the state's "Downeast" region, neither town is on a list of infrastructure upgrades from incumbents. With an aging population, a need to consider their economic future, and no hope of help from big national ISPs, Baileyville and Calais are joining forces and developing their own publicly owned broadband utility.
Baileyville and Calais
There are about 3,000 residents in Calais (pronounced "Kal-iss") and 1,500 in Baileyville, but according to Julie Jordan, Director of Downeast Economic Development Corporation (DEDC), many of those residents are aging and younger people find little reason to stay or relocate in Washington County. The community recognizes that they need to draw in new industries and jobs that will attract young families to keep the towns from fading off the map.
Most of the residents in the region must rely on slow DSL from Consolidated Communications (formerly FairPoint), while a few have access to cable from Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable); expensive and unreliable satellite is also an option and there's some limited fixed wireless coverage in the area. A few larger businesses that require fiber optic connectivity can find a way to have it installed, but Julie tells us that it's incredibly expensive in the area and most can't afford the high rates for fiber.
Economic Development Driven
Organized in 2015, the nonprofit DEDC came together with the focus on recruiting new businesses to the area and to support existing businesses. As DEDC quickly discovered, unless the region could offer high-speed, reliable Internet infrastructure, attracting new businesses and helping existing businesses expand would be extremely difficult. They also determined that new families would not be interested in Baileyville or Calais without high-quality connectivity. "It was a no-brainer," says Julie, "you have to go fiber."
In March, Washington state legislators passed HB 2664 and sent it on to Governor Jay Inslee, who signed the bill on March 22nd. In the Port of Ridgefield, where the community has been developing plans for a dark fiber network, the community had advocated for the change. Now that the law will be changing for the better, they’re ready to pursue the partnerships they need to spur economic development and improve connectivity for residents and businesses.
Not A New Idea In The Port Of Ridgefield
Back in 2016, we reported how town officials from the Port of Ridgefield had already started setting aside funds to invest in a 42-mile dark fiber loop. The quality of residential and business Internet access options in the community depended on where a premise was located. The community’s Vice President of Innovation Nelson Holmberg described connectivity in the Port of Ridgefield as a “mixed bag”.
The port already had some fiber in place, as many do for communications between facilities and other uses, and port officials wanted to integrate those assets into the design of the new infrastructure. At the time, state law would only allow "rural" ports to use their fiber in any partnership agreements designed to offer connectivity to people or entities outside of the port districts. The Port of Ridgefield did not qualify as "rural". After advocacy from officials from the Port of Ridgefield and other ports around the state, legislators passed HB 2664, which amends the law to remove the restriction. All ports will soon be able to enter into wholesale arrangements with ISPs interested in leasing dark fiber to offer telecommunications services to the public.
Big Plans In Ridgefield
Most residents and businesses in Oconee County, South Carolina, used dial-up connections when county officials applied for stimulus funding in 2010; there were still people in the county with no Internet access at all. A few had DSL connections, but even county facilities struggled with antiquated infrastructure. After an AT&T attack upended their plan to offer retail services, they pressed on and improved connectivity in the rural community. Powerful incumbent forces and a bad state law, however, eventually led this community to choose privatization.
Ripe For Stimulus
We spoke with Kim Wilbanks, who served as Project Manager for Oconee FOCUS, the 240-mile fiber optic publicly owned network. She worked with a small team of people that applied for funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to obtain funds for the project. Wilbanks and former FOCUS Director Mike Powell were instrumental in establishing the infrastructure. The Wilbanks family used dial-up Internet access until 2010 when AT&T finally installed DSL on her street on the edge of town in the mostly rural county.
The mountains and hills across the county’s 674 square miles create a terrain that is speckled with man-made lakes. Fishing, water skiing, and sailing are popular and the lakes and waterfalls contribute to the region’s hydroelectric energy. Approximately 75,000 people live in Oconee County scattered within many of the small rural communities. The largest city’s population is only about 8,000.
With the best intentions, Kentucky announced in late 2014 that it would build out a statewide open access fiber optic network to at least one location in each county to encourage high-quality connectivity in both urban and rural communities. Hopes were high as rural residents and businesses that depended on DSL and dial-up envisioned connectivity to finally bring them into the 21st century. After almost three years and multiple issues that have negatively impacted the project, legislators and everyday folks are starting to wonder what's in store for the KentuckyWired project.
Local Communities Are Best Suited To Deploy Community Networks
There is no one-size-fits-all method of deploying across a state filled with communities and landscapes as diverse as Kentucky. From the urban centers like Louisville and Lexington to the rocky, mountainous terrain in the southeastern Appalachian communities, demographics and geography vary widely. But most lack modern Internet access and local ISPs have found it hard to get affordable backhaul to connect to the rest of the Internet.
There are several municipal networks in Kentucky, some of which have operated for decades. In addition to Glasgow, Paducah, Bowling Green, Frankfort, and others, Owensboro is currently expanding a pilot project that proved popular. As our own Christopher Mitchell discussed at the Appalachia Connectivity Summit, several cooperatives have made major fiber-optic investments in the state.
When it comes to connecting residents and local businesses, we strongly believe local entities are the best choice. Local officials have a better sense of rights-of-way, the challenges of pole attachments, and the many other moving pieces that go into network investment. Projects with local support see fewer barriers - people are more willing to grant easements, for instance.
Folks living in the Boxley Building in downtown Roanoke will soon have the choice of the community’s first Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access delivered by publicly owned infrastructure. The Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) recently announced that one of the ISPs using the fiber has decided to expand its services to residential premises in the building.
Fulfilling The Purpose
“This goes back to the core, as far as why this was formed,” broadband authority President and CEO Frank Smith said. “To create a network that other players can come in and use. We’re doing what we set out to do.”
ABS Technology is based in Virginia Beach and has an office in Roanoke. The company is starting with the single apartment building but told the Roanoke Times they may offer last mile services to more Roanoke residential subscribers in future. ABS regional sales manager Greg Henderson said that the RVBA infrastructure enabled ABS to develop the project. Without it, he said “there is no way” the company would have been able to pursue a residential build out.
Better Connectivity, Better Community
RVBA provides several options for local businesses, including dark fiber, data transport, and Internet access. ISPs such as ABS lease fiber to serve local businesses and large institutions with the expertise to manage their own networks. The resource is helping to reinvigorate Roanoke and the surrounding community.
Earlier this year, RVBA connected a business accelerator downtown aimed at attracting and keeping talent at home. The project is a collaboration between the city, the Virginia Western Community College, and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. The city renovated an old historic building, the college will be offering business courses there, and the council will develop mentoring and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs who fill spaces at the incubator.
Residents and businesses of Islesboro, Maine, are waiting eagerly to connect to their new Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network this fall. Recently, the community finalized an important step when it signed an agreement with Central Maine Power Company (CMP).
One Piece Of A Larger Plan
In 2016, community leaders were already well into their efforts to bring better connectivity to the island community. They expected to lease poles from CMP to hang fiber, but CMP’s plans to install a new fiber optic line to enhance electric service soon became part of the community network design. The new cable installation was necessary to replace the original 1955 cable to the island and to to serve as a redundant line to a cable that was in stalled in 1992.
Network planners asked CMP to include a fiber line within the 3-mile undersea cable running across the Penobscot Bay. The community will lease CMP’s fiber, which will connect to the wider Internet on the mainland.
“We are delighted with CMP’s cooperation in providing our community with access to their fiber currently crossing Penobscot Bay,” said Islesboro Town Manager Janet Anderson. "This timely and affordable solution allows us to quickly complete our broadband internet system."
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Islesboro first began investigating how to improve Internet access on the island in 2012 with a Broadband Working Group. After three years of study, appealing to incumbents, and analyzing options, they decided to invest in publicly owned infrastructure and work with a private provider that will offer Internet access. The community voted to bond for the network, estimated to cost approximately $3.8 million.
Most people associate Pasadena with the annual Tournament of Roses parade and the Rose Bowl football game, but under the flowery surface, fiber is connecting Pasadena’s municipal facilities, businesses, and electric utility substations. Pasadena developed its fiber optic network to improve electric utility efficiency but also with an eye toward the future. When they invested in the infrastructure, community leaders anticipated that economic development would thrive in communities with ample high-quality connectivity.
Lori Sandoval, Telecom and Regulatory Administrator for Pasadena's Department of Information Technology was involved in the development of Pasadena's fiber network from the beginning and she shared the story with us. She also provided some lessons learned so other communities can get the most out of Pasadena's experience.
A Community Of Culture
The community of approximately 140,000 people was one of the first incorporated in what is now Los Angeles County and considered a cultural hub. IN addition to Caltech, Pasadena City College and the ArtCenter College of Design, the Pasadena Playhouse and several museums are there. JPL and Kaiser Permanente are two of its largest employers. Its school system, Pasadena Unified School District, extends beyond the reach of the city. Pasadena has been celebrated for its architecture, especially it 1930s bungalows and many historical estates.
How It All Started
In the mid-1990s, the community included construction of a fiber optic network in its strategic plan. Pasadena Water and Power had been using old copper lines for communications between substations and needed to replace them with something more reliable that also provided more bandwidth. During this same period, the City Manager’s Office was investigating ways to create new revenue and local businesses were finding that they could not obtain the Internet services they needed from incumbent ISPs.
When Greeneville Light & Power System (GLPS) started bringing better connectivity to the local school system, it improved educational opportunities for kids in the Tennessee community. Now, the municipal utility plans to use the same approach to save lives by connecting emergency responders across the county.
Rural Greene County, Tennessee, can’t attract national providers to invest in high-quality connectivity because it doesn’t have the population density ISPs look for to justify investment. According to GLPS General Manager Bill Carroll, the utility serves an average of 17 or 18 customers per mile. Greene County is approximately 650 square miles. Without a reason to bring better infrastructure to serve residential customers, national ISPs aren’t there to provide services to the police or sheriff facilities either.
GLPS will bring connectivity to Greene County 911, the Greenville Police Department, and the Greene County Sheriff’s Department. Each entity will pay for the construction of the fiber network to their facilities and pay a monthly fee to GLPS. The rate for their connectivity is based on a “per-mile” calculation, which allows GLPS to cover their costs; GLPS charges the school system the same way. Greeneville City Schools are saving approximately $50,000 per year, a significant savings in a town of 15,000 people.
GLPS will not act as an Internet Service Provider, but will allow public safety departments to cut down on expenses by eliminating leased lines. More importantly, the new network will be creating reliable connections. Greenville Police Department Captain Mike Crum said, “This partnership will truly save lives. That is a very difficult aspect to quantify when conducting a cost analysis.”
What The Future Holds
GLPS has no plans to expand their approach to serve residents and businesses throughout the county, but they haven’t ruled it out:
Carroll and his staff are assessing to determine if a project of that magnitude could be feasible and said they will bring that information to the Power Board as it becomes available.