Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Dalton, Georgia, Officially A Gig City
In a recent episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, host Christopher Mitchell spoke with Hank Blackwood from Dalton Utilities in Georgia about their publicly owned network, OptiLink. Hank described an upcoming milestone for the community of around 35,000 and a few surrounding rural areas with access to the network. Now it’s official — OptiLink is the first municipal network in the state that offers residential gigabit Internet access to subscribers.
Gigabit connectivity is coming on the heels of another improvement for OptiLink subscribers. This fall, officials at Dalton Utilities launched their new video product, VidLink. Hank described that the old video equipment needed a facelift after providing services to the community for 15 years.
With VidLink and the new subscriber base it began to attract, and the desire to give Dalton the economic development tools for a truly tech-centered economy, network officials decided it was time to expand gigabit connectivity. They had offered the service to businesses for about four years and on November 19th, 2018, officially launched residential symmetrical gig service.
Residential GIGLink service is an affordable $79.95 per month when bundled with VidLink and voice. Stand alone GIGLink service costs $84.95 per month.
Households can still sign up for three other symmetrical tiers as low as $41.95 per month for 50 Megabits per second (Mbps). Bundling with voice and video saves subscribers $5 per month.
It All Began With SCADA
Town of Mountain Village, Colorado, Issues RFP; Responses Due August 18
Another small rural community in Colorado has recently taken an important step toward better connectivity for the community. The Town of Mountain Village issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) late in June to find a firm to conduct a Broadband Assessment and Feasibility Study. Responses are due August 10, 2018.
Assess and Propose
The Town of Mountain Village (TMV) has an existing municipal cable network that offers Internet access, voice, and video. Community leaders want to engage a firm to assess the current infrastructure, consider improvements over the next few years, and make recommendations for improvements.
In addition to searching for ways to improve service and pinpoint any potential adoption and service gaps, the consultants will also be expected to devise a broadband strategy. TMV community leaders understand that the future will require better infrastructure than they now possess. The city wants to learn about the possible outlook for Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), potential partnerships, smart policies, and potential funding sources.
Town of Mountain Village
With only approximately 1,300 full-time residents and an additional non-resident property owner population, Mountain Village has similar qualities to some of the other rural communities we’ve covered. Penobscot, Maine, where seasonal visitors swell the population and the need for better connectivity, recently issued an RFI in their search for firms to help improve local Internet access. In addition to offering services to the general public, TMV's existing network connects municipal facilities, including water and wastewater, public transportation, public safety, parks and recreation, municipal offices, the housing authority properties.
Frankfort, Barbourville Upgrading Systems In Kentucky
Several communities in Kentucky have been managing publicly owned Internet networks for decades, including Barbourville and Frankfort. Residents and businesses depend on their great customer service and quality Internet access. Like everything else, however, telecommunications infrastructure ages and now both communities are considering how to upgrade.
Barbourville Going With Fiber
Barbourville, Kentucky, began offering cable Internet access to residents in the 1990s and were one of the first to offer cable TV service back in the 1950s. Currently, residential customers can opt for 6 or 12 Megabits per second (Mbps) with 384 Kbps and 1 Mbps respectively. Now, the public utility is upgrading to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), which will significantly boost both download and upload speeds. Barbourville Utilities advertise identical commercial options for customers with an additional option of 25 Mbps / 2 Mbps. They also advertise symmetrical fiber optic business services that range from 6 Mbps to 10 Gigabits per second.
In their announcement, Barbourville Utilities estimates more than 4,000 residential and business customers will have access to the new FTTH service. They’re christening the new high-quality fiber Internet access “Blink” and construction will start on September 5th.
“We are extremely pleased to bring revolutionary Internet technology to our community,” Barbourville Utilities General Manager Josh Callihan said. “Increasing broadband access is a top priority in southeastern Kentucky and we are proud that our community will be a pioneer for this growth.”
Barbourville is located in Knox County in southeastern Kentucky, within the Appalachians. Like other communities in the region, Barbourville faces unique problems that affect rural economies. Fortunately, Barbourville Utilities have already established infrastructure and the personnel in place with expertise to manage a network. Their past decision to invest in a community network will help keep them stay competitive today as new businesses look for affordable locations with high-quality connectivity.
Frankfort Considering FTTH
Tennessee Muni Rates Fact Sheet
In addition to studying how and where local communities examine the potential for publicly owned Internet networks, we’ve looked at rates over time in select areas of the country. We recently put together a comparison of historical rates for municipal networks in Tennessee. Our findings are consistent with what we’ve seen all over the country - publicly owned networks don't hesitate to raise speeds while keeping rates affordable. We've documented the data on our fact sheet: Municipal Networks: Speed Increases & Affordable Prices.
Not Like The Big Guys
National providers make it a habit to periodically raise rates and over time those increases add up. They’ve done it so often, subscribers have come to expect it on a regular basis. Price increases don’t usually include a speed increase. With no need to appease shareholders, officials in charge of publicly owned networks can set rates at a level that allow a network to be sustainable rather than rates that maximize profits.
Publicly owned networks have increased speeds for subscribers, often with little or no fanfare other than quietly alerting subscribers to their improved service. Places Chattanooga’s EPB, Morristown’s FiberNET, and BET in Bristol are in a much different habit than Comcast or AT&T - they increase speeds with no increase in price. Other Tennessee communities have increased speeds significantly with only slight price increases over years of service.
Speeds, Rates Then And Now
On our fact sheet, we include prices for the basic tiers now and when the network began offering services. We also compare the basic speeds when the network began serving the community and today. The results reflect how publicly owned networks focus on providing fast, affordable connectivity to subscribers rather than collecting profit from customers.
Some results may surprise you:
New Rural Gig From SMBS In Minnesota
Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) is now rolling out gigabit connectivity to local communities. Local leaders and network officials anticipate the upgrade will attract more jobs and more people to this rural area of the state:
"Jackson is very fortunate. This is something that a lot of people probably take for granted and don't realize how lucky we are in greater Minnesota to have high capacity access," said Jackson City Administrator Jennifer Bromeland.
"It's just been so vitally important, and to be able to offer that in the communities of our size is just something else. It's absolutely fabulous," SMBS General Manager Travis Thies said.
SMBS received $12.8 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding to add to their own contributions, for the 181-mile fiber project in 2012. The publicly owned regional network serves the communities of Jackson, Bingham Lake, Heron Lake, Lakefield, Brewster, Wilder, Okabena, and Round Lake. Several of the communities in the consortium had been told by incumbent CenturyTel (now CenturyLink) they would never get upgrades faster than dial-up because the towns were just too small to justify investment from a national provider. Now all the communities collectively own the high-speed fiber-optic network.
Local businesses strongly supported the project and helped secure the ARRA funding with letters to the federal government expressing the need for better connectivity in the region. Municipal facilities were connected to the Internet via 1.5 Mbps connections that drained bandwidth for the rest of the community. Local healthcare facilities and nonprofits also stepped up to submit appeals to the federal government. Clearly, the entire region - and all sectors in it - needed better connectivity.
Things have changed since the communities took matters into their own hands.
"We have the fiber set up to many of our businesses and residents right now, so we have had this for a while and it's helping or businesses to meet their goals and just helping us to keep people in Jackson and attract people to want to move to Jackson," said Bromeland.
Better Broadband On The Prairie
Upgrade In The Corn Belt : Coon Rapids, Iowa
Coon Rapids, Iowa, recently began its upgrade project, replacing its cable network with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH). Coon Rapids Municipal Utilities (CRMU) hopes to have the citywide project completed by late summer 2018.
Experience From The Eighties
CRMU started offering cable TV to the community in 1982. At first, the system only offered about 35 channels. In 1996, community leaders began considering the possibility of offering Internet access and formed a task force to address the idea. After talking with residents and researching other communities’ approaches, the task force recommended Coon Rapids move forward with establishing a communications system.
In 1996, 87 percent of votes cast in a referendum were in favor of investing in a municipally owned cable communications system and a similar percentage voted to have CRMU be in control of the system. By the end of August, just a few weeks after the vote, CRMU was offering dial-up Internet access.
The utility constructed a fiber-coaxial system in 1998 and within a year CRMU was providing telephone, Internet access, and cable TV services via the community network.
Coon Rapids is home to about 1,300 people and is located about an hour west of Des Moines.
Montana Telephone Co-Op 3 Rivers Communications Upgrades To Fiber
Out in Big Sky Country, some rural communities look forward to high-speed Internet service from their local telephone co-op. 3 Rivers Communications in Montana has spent the last few years steadily building out their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to rural residents.
This spring, 3 Rivers Communications is set to start on two new areas: an $8 million project near Choteau (pop: 1,700) and a $1.5 million project near Fairfield (pop: 700).
Focus on Rural Residents
The local newspaper Choteau Acantha reported on 3 River Communications’ latest plans. About 500 folks will be able to get high-quality phone, video, and Internet service at home when the co-op finishes both projects in late 2017 or early 2018.
The current plans focus on rural residents on the outskirts of both towns. Folks in Fairfield already have access to fiber service, but people within the city of Choteau have DSL. Businesses in Choteau can request fiber connections, but the co-op is not currently planning to offer fiber connectivity to residents inside town limits.
These fiber projects are all part of a larger program to upgrade in the cooperative's service area of 17,000 square miles. The co-op is taking out the old copper telephone lines and replacing them with brand new fiber-optic cables. It’s a large undertaking and will serve approximately 20,000 members.
Federal Funding for Rural Areas
To upgrade to fiber in its large service area, 3 Rivers Communications obtained funding from several federal programs, including the Rural Utilities Services (RUS) and the Universal Service Fund. The co-op received a $70 million loan in 2011 and another $30 million loan in 2016 to improve the network.
Currently, the lowest tier bundle of phone and 10 Mbps Internet service is $85 per month, but co-op members get back excess revenue in capital credits each year. 3 Rivers General Manager Dave Gibson described the balance of costs and prices to the Choteau Acantha:
Muscatine Upgrade Ready To Begin
Muscatine, Iowa, is ready to begin its upgrade, bringing municipal cable network customers up to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology. Last week, the Board of Water, Electric & Communications Trustees from Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) awarded the contract to a firm that will transform the network and bring speeds up to 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Megabits per second) download tier. No word yet on upload speeds.
As we reported last spring, MP&W is taking a slow march toward finishing this project because there are a number of interlocking pieces that need to fit together correctly. The firm awarded the contract was able to introduce several alternatives that reduced the initial estimate of $8.7 million to $7.5 million. The upgrade will be funded with an interdepartmental loan from the electric utility.
At the same meeting, the Board also reviewed the 2016 budget which came out well for the MachLink communications utility.
Net income of $1,372,919 was budgeted for the communications utility, but actual net income was $2,148,272, with an ending cash balance of $8,257,000. There also is debt of $9,044,000 owed to the electric utility. Gowey said revenues were 3.2 percent over budget, while expenses were 25 percent under.
The upgrade will begin in May and customers are expected to be on the new system as early as August. The project should be completed by the end of 2018.
Spencer, Iowa, About To Go Citywide FTTH
Last spring we reported that Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) was marching steadily on with its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project that it started in 2015. Within a few months, SMU is set to begin the fourth and final phase; the entire community will soon will have access to fiber connectivity.
Last And Final Phase
As part of the last phase, the utility will place a new substation in the northeast section of town. According to SMU General Manager and CEO Steve Pick, the utility has purchased a prefabricated structure built especially for this purpose. The structure will be delivered and installed by the sellers and the utility will pay approximately $40,000 for the building.
Spencer, Iowa, population 11,200, is one of the many rural towns that chose to invest in the necessary infrastructure to improve connectivity for local businesses and residents, rather than gamble on whether or not national companies would ever deliver. They began serving customers in 2000 with a cable network and, after they realized customers’ bandwidth demands would continue to rise, decided to upgrade to fiber. The network has been good for the quality of life and economic development in Spencer.
Prepping For The Future
Amanda Gloyd, SMU marketing and community relations manager, told the Daily Reporter:
“Our customers continue to use more bandwidth and we only see that continuing to increase in the future. In the areas of Spencer where the conversion is already complete, we are able to offer 50 [Mbps] all the way to 1 [Gbps] of service, which is exciting to be able to offer in addition to the increased reliability, decreased maintenance and paving the way for how our communication services will be delivered in the future.”
Paul Bunyan Communications' GigaZone Keeps Growing
The mythical Paul Bunyan was enormous. Paul Bunyan Communications’ GigaZone appears to be following his example as it continues to expand throughout northern rural Minnesota. The cooperative recently announced that they are expanding the upgrade once again, bringing Gigabit per second (Gbps) capacity to their members via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. This time, members in the communities of Kelliher and Northome will have access to the upgrade.
The Big Gig
The expansion brings gigabit network to more than 1,700 additional locations; this will bring Paul Bunyan’s GigaZone footprint to more than 29,400 locations. The network covers more than 5,000 square miles in Beltrami County and also reaches areas of Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties.
In November 2016, the cooperative began offering service on the Red Lake Nation, which makes it one of only a few tribal communities with high-quality Internet access. Paul Bunyan provides gigabit connectivity to local schools for affordable rates and has been awarded the Leading Lights National Award for most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service.
A Long Time Coming
Paul Bunyan Telephone began in 1950 when the residents in very rural northern Minnesota either had no telephone service, or received it from their townships, which meant they had to share lines with up to nine other customers. As a prerequisite to obtaining a loan from the Rural Telephone Administration (RTA) through the Rural Electric Administration (REA), the Co-op Board had to purchase and operate an existing system. They started with the privately owned Kelliher Telephone Company along with the Hendrickson Township Telephone system. In addition funds they had obtained by selling memberships in the cooperative, the board directors agreed to mortgage their own property as collateral so another local cooperative and a local bank would loan Paul Bunyan Telephone enough to purchase both telephone systems. It was a risk, but it paid off.