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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.
Hampton Roads, a metropolitan region bordering the Chesapeake Bay in southeastern Virginia, is known for its 17th century historical sites, shipyards crowded with naval aircraft carriers, and mile-long bridge tunnels. Home to 1.7 million Virginians, Hampton Roads is now looking to broaden avenues for economic development by leveraging existing transatlantic subsea broadband cables to transform the region into a technology-forward digital port. That’s why regional officials recently issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking one or more private partner(s) to construct a regionally-owned 100-mile, open access fiber ring.
Private partners interested in responding to the RFP [pdf] must do so by August 24, 2021. Potential partners can decide to offer some or all of the project functions, choosing to: design, build, finance, operate, and/or maintain the regional fiber ring. (See instructions on how to respond to the RFP, as well as details on the selection process, under Section IV on Page 7.)
Five of the nine cities that make up the region colloquially referred to as “the 757” - Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach - banded together to improve local fiber connectivity in 2018, forming the Southside Network Authority (the Authority).
According to the Authority's RFP, the project was undertaken to resolve the broadband issues faced by the cities, including:
a need for more and more affordable internal connectivity for governmental operations
equity and affordability concerns in general as compared to similar metropolitan areas
a perceived lack of responsiveness by incumbent providers to the needs of the business community and economic development prospects
a relative lack of broadband infrastructure by comparison to comparable metropolitan areas
and concerns about the security and scalability of existing, privately-owned regional networks
Numerous towns located in a region of southeastern Maine dubbed “Paddler’s Paradise” by outdoor adventurers and watersports fans are exploring more collaborative ways to improve local Internet connectivity. The Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) recently issued a request for proposal [pdf] on behalf of several towns located in the Sebago Lakes region of Cumberland County, Maine. Proposals are due May 31st.
GPCOG, in partnership with Cumberland County, the Community Concepts Finance Corporation, and the Northern Forest Center, is seeking technical assistance to coordinate a regional, multi-town approach to better broadband.
Upon embarking on individual, citywide approaches to improve Internet access, the towns of Bridgton, Denmark, Fryeburg, Harrison, Naples, Raymond, Sebago and Standish recognized that a regional approach would improve efficiency and speed efforts.
(See chart, right, which details the preliminary, planning stages that have been completed by communities, and which they have yet to address.)
The coalition is interested in selecting one or more broadband consultants to coordinate the individualized approaches of each of the towns. Consultants will be tasked with combining and building upon the assets of each to develop a regional proposal for a faster and more coordinated buildout of networks.
Read the full RFP here [pdf].
Goals of the Proposal
The final network will connect the cities of Centerville, Kettering, Miamisburg, Moraine, Oakwood, Springboro and West Carrollton with more than 40 miles of fiber, with the resulting infrastructure bringing increased bandwidth, speed, and capacity at an affordable price to the local governments, schools, nonprofits and public safety facilities of seven communities under the Miami Valley Communications Council (MVCC).
Funding the Final Strands
Independents Fiber Network (IFN) has agreed to fund Phase II of the project with $1.8 million, bringing the total cost to just over $3 million. IFN currently owns some of the fiber connecting Springboro and Miamisburg, operating as a middle-mile provider over its 2,000 route-mile network throughout 31 Ohio counties.
“The unique public-private partnership with IFN made it possible for member communities to complete this project without any additional investment of taxpayer dollars,” Leanne Nash, MVCC Board Chair and West Carrollton City Council member told the Dayton Daily News. " At the end of the project, MVCC and IFN will equally split the available fiber and conduit assets which can then be sold or leased to interested technology providers.”
The Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission (OVRDC) has an ongoing RFP [pdf] to hire a Broadband Planning Coordinator to perform asset inventory, mapping, and an analysis of existing wireline and wireless network in a twelve-county region. It’s part of a $400,000 grant the commission received as part of CARES funding that will, in part, look for ways to expand and upgrade broadband connectivity options in support of manufacturing, telehealth, distance learning, and economic recovery in the region following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Hemmings, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission, said of the grant and position:
We are appreciative of the Economic Development Administration in assisting us with recovery efforts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, OVRDC has been a champion of better broadband service in our region and throughout Appalachia and rural Ohio. COVID-19 put on display quite clearly the shortcomings and broadband issues we suffer from in our region. With this grant, we look forward to evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on our tourism sector. We are hopeful through this assistance we can advance efforts to remedy these situations in the OVRDC region.
Interested individuals and firms will work with existing stakeholders to provide a comprehensive look at the state of broadband and opportunities for expansion in support of the above efforts across Adams, Brown, Clermont, Fayette, Gallia, Highland, Jackson, Lawrence, Pike, Ross, Scioto and Vinton Counties. They cluster south of Columbus along the state’s southern border. The OVRDC “coordinates federal, state and local resources to encourage development and improve quality of life by offering technical assistance, planning and support for economic development, community development and transportation projects.”
A new report out by North Carolina's Broadband and Infrastructure Office looks at the ways that broadband and telehealth can solve some of the disparities that disproportionately affect tens of thousands of its citizens living in the western fifth of the state. These “coal-impacted communities,” it argues, would benefit greatly across a host of interventions which would be facilitated by investment in wireline broadband infrastructure, technical assistance, and digital literacy programs. If implemented, they would increase access to medical doctors and mental health professionals for all North Carolinians, eliminate barriers related to transportation, reduce state healthcare costs, increase the speed of intervention and reduce the time to diagnosis, and eliminate unnecessary hospital and emergency room admissions.
Healthcare in the High Country
"Carolina Crosscut: Broadband and Telehealth in North Carolina's Appalchain Coal-Impacted Communities" [pdf] comes out of a $100,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant given to the Office of Broadband Infrastructure and the Office of Rural Development for two purposes: to figure out broadband availability and adoption as they relate to health disparities across the twenty-county region clustered along the state’s western border, and to map assets and come up with specific policy recommendations for state agencies and lawmakers.
These are North Carolina’s “coal-impacted” communities, which the report defines as those which exhibit a “generational dependence on coal extraction and related supply chains [which] has resulted in personal and community economic devastation.” To be clear and despite its title, the framing here is economic, and not based on the adverse health effects of working in coal extraction. It should also be noted that the economic impact described in the report surely extended beyond the twenty counties at the center of the study.
While new municipal networks often (and rightly!) catch headlines for dramatically improving the lives of residents by giving them access to high-speed, reliable, low-cost Internet access, institutional networks also remain a tried-and-true model for cities and regions looking to begin investing in their information future. And, by connecting government buildings, schools, public libraries, and other community anchor institutions, they save communities money and can serve as an alternative when monopoly ISPs like Comcast try to negotiate huge fee increases to basic city services without any explanation (like in the case of Martin County, FL).
The Miami Valley, Ohio, region accomplished the same goal a year ago, when GATEway Fiber lit up its intergovernmental, multi-jurisdictional fiber network connecting eight member cities and dozens of municipal buildings, schools, and other public anchor institutions. The result of six years of effort, the project provides the capacity and technical expertise for present and future undertakings to enhance educational initiatives, public safety programs, and utility work, and provides a model for other communities looking to work together to secure their information infrastructure moving forward.
A Joint Venture
Many Vermont communities are looking to ECFiber and Central Vermont Internet as models for the creation of communications union districts (CUD) to develop regional fiber networks. By combining several towns’ efforts, CUDs bring high-quality Internet service to underserved residents and local businesses.
On March 3rd, four towns from Windham County in the southeastern corner of Vermont voted to create a CUD. The new Deerfield Valley CUD will join the small towns of Marlboro, Halifax, Whitingham, and Wilmington. All four communities are located in mountainous areas where infrastructure development is often challenging and costly. The towns’ joint venture will help finance broadband deployment in the region.
Slow Speeds, High Costs
The towns have been operating on slow DSL connectivity, which is insufficient for things like telehealth services, online education, and local economic development. According to state data from 2018, about 27 percent of all locations in Windham County do not have access to broadband.
Clay Purvis, director of telecommunications at the Vermont Department of Public Service, described how connectivity is an issue in the state because of the high price to deploy the infrastructure:
Our geography is really challenging in Vermont — we are dispersed, we have small towns, we have farming communities — so the distance between service locations is far, so the cost of deploying broadband is more expensive per location . . . Hills are the enemy of wireless technology and it requires a lot more towers, for instance, to bring cell coverage to the same number of people.
More power to small towns
Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Offering Rural Speed, Reliability - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 396
Rural areas are taking steps to improve their connectivity and are developing high-quality Internet access on par with the best services in urban centers. When smaller communities band together, they increase their chances of developing fast, affordable, reliable community networks that serve a larger swath of people. This week, Christopher speaks with Travis Thies, General Manager of one of those networks established to serve an eight-town region, Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS).
The network started with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and has continued to make improvements and upgrades to serve folks who were once stuck with antiquated Internet access. Before SMBS, several communities had been told by the incumbent Internet access provider that the best they could ever expect was dial-up service. Now, subscribers can sign-up for gigabit connections. With intelligent partnerships, they're also able to provide service to farms and rural premises beyond town limits.
Travis and Christopher discuss the history of the project, the challenges that community leaders and network officials have faced and overcome, and how the area's demographics have helped them determine the best ways to serve subscribers. They also discuss their partnership with a local fixed wireless Internet service provider and the how better connectivity has attracted people and businesses to the region.
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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.
A pair of Michigan cities are taking the next step toward a municipal broadband network by pursuing a feasibility study.
Farmington and Farmington Hills, suburbs of Detroit, approved the joint broadband feasibility study at the end of January. Officials hope the study will help reveal whether one or both cities should invest in a municipal broadband network. "It really will give us a much better understanding of how Farmington Hills and Farmington may or may not benefit by exploring this further," Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman told local news.
Cities Unite for Broadband
Farmington and Farmington Hills are bustling suburbs of Detroit, located approximately 25 miles northwest of the city. With a combined population of over 90,000, the two cities are close geographically as well as economically and politically. Farmington Hills almost entirely surrounds Farmington, and officials have previously considered merging their municipal governments. Though that proposal failed, the cities still share certain services, such as the school district.
In 2018, Farmington and Farmington Hills formed a joint task force to study the creation of a municipal broadband network in the cities. The task force, “began with the premise that broadband Internet is a critically important 4th utility, along with electricity, gas and water,” explains the Farmington Hills website.
The effort was prompted by residents who complained about limited broadband options and high costs, Farmington Councilman Joe LaRussa told a state news site. “Fiber-based Internet infrastructure was being prioritized in business corridors and bypassing neighborhoods and more remote areas of Farmington Hills,” he explained.