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Listen to Baratunde Thurston Interview Bruce Patterson About Open Access, Competition, and Ammon, Idaho
Baratunde Thurston hosted Bruce Patterson on the most recent episode of his podcast How To Citizen. The episode is a deep dive into the consequences of a lack of competition in Internet access, and how the city of Ammon on stepped up to meet the challenge. Baratunde talks with Technology Director Bruce Patterson about how he got into this space, how the project got started, and the wealth of positive outcomes it has help drive for the community.
Listen here, then watch the video below on how the network is saving money, creating competition for broadband services, and creating powerful new public safety applications.
Although Tennessee is one of 19 states in the nation with laws that limit municipal broadband networks, it is also home to several of the nation’s premier municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks, including EPB Fiber, a division of Chattanooga’s city-owned electric and telecommunications utility.
In the Volunteer State, municipal electric providers are restricted from offering Internet service on fiber networks beyond their service areas. But now, Knoxville, a city of approximately 187,000 residents and the home of the University of Tennessee, is aiming to get on the community fiber track and become the state’s next gig city.
Earlier this month, the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) Board of Commissioners approved a business plan that, if approved, will set the utility on a path to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to its more than 468,000 customers spread out across Knoxville, Knox County, and small parts of seven neighboring counties.
The plan has been sent off to the Tennessee State Comptroller office for review, one of the initial steps in the process to bring triple-play services (Internet, phone and TV) to its broadband-hungry customers.
A Need for Speed
Franklin, Kentucky’s (pop. 8,400) electric utility is gearing up for an expansion of its partnership with Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (WRECC) with the help of $2.3 million from the recent FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The new partnership will allow Franklin EPB to add new service to roughly 250 locations adjacent to a current project in the area.
The expansion project will add subscribers in the northeast region of Simpson County and nearby parts of the city of Franklin in the south-central part of the state, where the two entities are operating a two-area fiber pilot.
HiLight — Hillsboro, Oregon’s (pop. 105,000) citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network — has officially launched and begun connecting its first subscribers. After five years of consideration and planning, it’s an exciting moment, with hundreds of homes and businesses brought online over the last few months. Over the next seven years, at least $28 million will be put towards the rollout, bringing the municipal network to tens of thousands of locations across the city.
Hillsboro sits just outside of Portland, and has been looking for better connectivity options for years. A large proportion of its population is comprised of tech workers and residents with advanced degrees; the city, in fact, anchors the state’s Silicon Forest, so named for the group of technology firms employing tens of thousands of workers across three Intel campuses as well as operations by Oracle, Salesforce, Epson, and Synopsis. A citywide fiber network serves to provide competition and capacity to keep them in the area:
Hillsboro is the tallest tree in the Silicon Forest and the center of Oregon’s high-tech cluster. With an affordable high-speed network, Hillsboro’s homegrown talent — our students and entrepreneurs — will be better positioned to lead the world in innovating for the future. Hillsboro will continue to attract and retain talent and be a hub for innovation.
But Hillsboro also faces a stark digital divide fueled by economic inequality, and bridging it has been one of the city council’s (and now the network’s) main agenda items. This has driven the project’s second focus: bringing affordable, high-quality access to economically vulnerable residents stuck with no quality options today. It’s why the city has introduced one of the fastest low-cost access program we’ve seen established by any broadband network in the United States, with qualifying families getting access to symmetrical gigabit service for $10/month.
Putting Glass in the Ground
Built in 2008 with an eye toward the future and operated with local priorities in mind, Greenlight has a long track record of putting people first. In a new case study, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance explores the wide-ranging community benefits of Greenlight, the city-owned Fiber-to-the-Home network in Wilson, North Carolina.
The case study details how it has been able to quickly adapt and expand service during the pandemic, as well as the host of advantages and overall value brought to the city over the last decade in education, equity, and economic development. For example:
Access for All
- In 2016, Greenlight began a partnership with the Wilson Housing Authority (WHA) to connect hundreds of public housing residents to $10/month low-cost fast Internet access.
- The network targets barriers to service adoption that go beyond cost, including a flexpay system which allows users to prepay for Internet access instead of requiring large deposits or a credit check. It also allows users to load funds into their account for individual days of network access.
- Greenlight has been named as a key factor in Wilson’s economic revitalization.
- Wilson’s fiber infrastructure has helped local businesses succeed and is a factor in the relocation of new companies to the area. In 2019, Wilson was ranked the 10th best small city in the country to start a business.
- In 2016, Greenlight began co-sponsoring the GigEast Exchange Conference. The GigEast Exchange serves as a technology hub, incubator, and networking space for everyone in the community.
Less than seven months has passed since the city of Anacortes, Washington (pop. 17,000) connected the very first subscriber in a pilot project for its municipal network. In the interim, thousands of households have signed up, construction continues at full-steam, and local officials are looking forward to years of providing fast, affordable, reliable service to those living on Fidalgo Island.
Five Years in the Making
We’ve been following Anacortes since 2015, when the city first began discussing the issue, watching as as local leaders and stakeholders assessed community needs, the state of broadband in the area, and options available to them, and much has changed. Read through our previous coverage if you’re interested in how things unfolded, but by the early part of 2019 the city had decided to pass on the other options and build, maintain, and operate the network themselves.
Traverse City has officially launched its new municipal Fiber-to-the-Home network in the northern Michigan town of 15,000. The city's municipal electric utility, Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P), owns the network and operates it in a partnership with Fujitsu, with the latter building and initially helping operate it, but turning management over to TCLP as the city utility feels comfortable with each aspect of the operation.
TCL&P Fiber is being built incrementally, starting in the downtown area where the economic heart of the community lies. The first phase is estimated to cost $3.5 million and will offer 2,200 locations service. The rest of the community will be connected in coming years and perhaps ultimately areas outside the current electric footprint.
Getting up to Speed
Traverse City has been working in the communications space for more than 10 years with dark fiber leases to major anchor institutions and key economic entities. In more recent years they were providing free Wi-Fi downtown while considering how to improve Internet access to smaller businesses and residents. For years, they examined various options, with serious consideration of an open access network where the city would build the infrastructure but other ISPs would use it to connect customers.
In an interview today, TCL&P Executive Director Tim Arends told us that they moved on this project after sensing a lot of pent up demand for better service — with speed, reliability, and especially customer service as common complaints with existing service. Though TCL&P did not name check the existing providers, AT&T DSL and Charter Spectrum cable are the main incumbent providers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for local governments to hold in-person meetings, but the people of Block Island, Rhode Island, didn’t let it get in the way of bringing better connectivity to their community.
Late last month, voters in Block Island’s sole town of New Shoreham gathered (at safe distances) in the local school building and on its grounds to approve $8 million in borrowing to build an island-wide, municipal fiber network. Residents were overwhelmingly in favor of funding the broadband network, which would be the first of its kind in the state.
Townspeople and visitors alike have been dissatisfied with communications services on the island for many years. In response, the town built a fiber network to connect anchor institutions last year. Now, New Shoreham is preparing to expand its fiber network to island homes and businesses.
“I believe the vote to authorize the pursuit of the island-wide broadband will prove to be a transformational vote in this town’s history,” Town Manager Jim Kern told the Block Island Times. “And the level of support for the proposal reflected that.”
Coastal Community Needs Connectivity
New Shoreham is home to about 1,000 year-round residents, but the island, located about 9 miles south of the Rhode Island mainland and 14 miles east of Long Island, New York, is a popular destination for summer tourists. More than 40% of Block Island is currently protected via conservation easements.
Iowa is home to many community networks, from co-ops to muni cable, fiber, and other technologies. Three communities in the state have just recently made important announcements about their plans, and several others are moving forward with networks. There is so much happening in Iowa right now that shows potential for other states that don't limit competition.
There is a long history of local broadband excellence in Iowa for new networks to draw on. Cedar Falls Utilities was just recognized as the fastest ISP in the nation by PCMag. It has well over 20 years of success, but recent years have seen it sharing its expertise and facilities to lower the cost for other communities to build networks without reinventing the wheel. Local private Internet service provider ImOn is also a partner for these networks, offering voice services.
Many of these networks being built will be able to share services and lower their costs by being on the same ring to get some scale benefits despite being smaller communities. I remember many years ago when Eric Lampland of Lookout Point started pushing for this ring, and I am dumbfounded why we don't see more of this cooperation among munis and small providers in other states. Thanks to Eric and Curtis Dean of SmartSource Consulting who helped me with background for this Iowa update.
We have a brief mention of West Des Moines's recently announced partnership with Google Fiber in here, but we're finishing a longer post that solely examines their approach. Between this, that, and our Coon Rapids podcast this week, it is officially Iowa week on MuniNetworks.org!
Vinton's new municipal fiber network has just started connecting subscribers, leading to a memorable testimonial in the local paper, Vinton Today:
Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) started its broadband division WhipCity Fiber and the buildout of their network five years ago. The project started with only serving Westfield, but WG+E is now contracting with other small towns in Massachusetts to assist in building and potentially operating their own fiber networks.
Today, WG+E is slated to help connect 12,400 households in 20 Massachusetts towns over the next 10 years. In order to do this, WG+E and WhipCity Fiber will receive more than $10 million over the next ten years through the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which awarded $1.5 billion in subsidies to broadband providers to expand rural connectivity across the nation. The 20 towns that are partnering with WG+E to build fiber networks are: Alford, Ashfield, Blandford, Becket, Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colrain, Cummington, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, New Ashford, New Salem, Otis, Plainfield, Rowe, Shutesbury, Washington, Wendell, and Windsor.
Adapting While Expanding
Westfield has been slowly building out its network, which is owned and operated by WG+E, and it is now roughly 75 percent complete. Lisa Stowe, the communications manager at WG+E, said that they temporarily paused new installations in Westfield due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, she is hopeful that they will begin connecting new customers and resume their buildout of the network this year.
To construct the WhipCity Fiber network, Westfield issued a $15 million bond. The city must pay down that bond and do routine updates to the network as they continue expanding. Stowe explained that they are well on track to having the network fully constructed within their original six year timeline.