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    Boulder's City Council is considering November ballot question to restore local authority for municipal telecommunications services. The measure, if passed, will create an exemption to the 2005 Colorado law allowing Boulder to better use its existing fiber optic infrastructure.

    Apparently, the Boulder community has a self-reliant streak. This is not the first time the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has reported on the community of 97,000. John Farrell, Director of the Democratic Energy initiative, has followed the grassroots campaign to establish a city-owned electric utility in Boulder.

    The Daily Camera reports that City Council staff, in a memo to Members, recommend the community seek authority to make use of existing assets. The City owns an extensive network of conduit that it began developing in the 1990s. Boulder has aggressively expanded the network, leasing it to private partners and using the space for a fiber I-Net to connect over 50 municipal facilities.

    The Boulder Research and Administration Network (BRAN) serves the City, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Each of the four entities shared equally in funding the $1.2 million eleven mile network. Boulder is an administering partner for BRAN and hopes to capitalize on that relationship even further.

    Approximately 10% of Boulder's residents have home-based businesses, reports City Council staff. The community ranks high in the concentration of software engineers, innovators, and scientists. Businesses with less than 100 employees comprise 97% of firms in Boulder. Local surveys indicate the business community is hungry for better services. From the Daily Camera article:

    [Director of Information Technology Don] Ingle said the city has no concrete plans in place to pursue partners, but he believes there will be a lot of interest if Boulder can get the authority.

    "The broadband capacity currently offered by the private sector is not large enough," he said. "Given all the business innovation going on with the tech center, that level of connectivity would be a huge asset."

    In the past, City leaders hoped to catch Google's attention but the election successes in Longmont, Centennial, and Montrose have inspired Boulder to take action rather than wait indefinitely. Boulder policy advisor Carl Castillo, told the Daily Camera city leaders believe the 2005 law poisoned the city's chances of becoming a Google Fiber community.

    "The way we look at it is that our taxpayers have paid for these assets, and we're not able to leverage these assets to offer higher-speed Internet at lower cost," Castillo said. "Right now, we can't really engage in these discussions. We're really going to be behind the ball if we don't have this authority."


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    On this week’s community broadband media roundup, we have more reverberations from Next Century Cities, a forward-thinking coalition of cities that promises real progress in establishing or restoring local authority for broadband networks. For the inside scoop on the launch, we suggest taking a look at Ann L. Kim’s Friday Q&A with Deb Socia, the executive director of the organization. 

    Here’s an excerpt: 

    Q: So when you say you work with cities that are either looking to get next generation broadband or already have it, what does that entail?

    A:…We are working with elected officials and also employees, like CIOs and city managers and so forth, and the goal is to really help them figure out their pathway. This is pretty hard work and we recognize that there’s always a local context and so we don’t advocate any one way to do this work, but we help cities think about it.

    So [are] you gonna work with an incumbent provider, are you gonna build your own, are you gonna work with a private non-profit? How are you gonna make it happen? What are the alternatives for you? And how can we best support you?

    Multichannel’s Jeff Baumgartner covered the launch in Santa Monica as well. The bipartisan coalition offers members collaboration opportunities and support for those communities that face incumbent pressure when they announce plans to move forward with publicly-owned broadband programs. According to China Topix’s David Curry, neither Comcast nor Time Warner Cable have made announcements about gig networks, “with Time Warner Cable even go as far as saying "customers don't want 1Gbps Internet speeds", a statement ridiculed on the Web.”  

    Rest assured, there will be much more coverage on this organization’s work in the weeks to come. 

    San Francisco is catching on to the “Dig Once” strategy, an idea that is known to help build public fiber networks incrementally, and at a huge cost-savings to communities. According to Marisa Lagos with the San Francisco Chronicle, City Supervisor David Chiu is pushing an ordinance that would require public and private agencies that dig up the streets for other work allow the placement of city-owned conduits that can be used for fiber. 

    [Chiu] hopes it will allow San Francisco to help bridge the “digital divide” by eventually letting residents and businesses access fast, inexpensive, city-owned broadband service…

    “Quality broadband service is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for our economy and our education system. You need access to high-speed broadband to compete, just as you needed access to water, roads and electricity in the 20th century,” Chiu said, noting that the United States lags behind smaller countries “when it comes to speed and reliability.”

    The Chamber of Commerce, Comcast and AT&T have agreed to stay neutral on the bill, which will most certainly help it move forward.

    “There was a time we thought everyone would have free electricity because of nuclear power,” [Chris Mitchell] said. “I think everyone will be paying for high-quality Internet access for the foreseeable future. But the installation of city-owned fiber will allow San Francisco officials to make sure no one is left without high-speed access, if private companies only build out some areas of town, for example.

    “This small step will really enable San Francisco to have more freedom in the future to be creative,” Chris Mitchell said. “It won’t be acceptable for some kids to have access to great Internet service and some not to, so this is important to have.”

    Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has saved an estimated $50 million for local businesses due to the smart grid over just the previous 2 years. Now, they’re partnering with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to improve efficiency for renewables like solar and wind. The partnership will allow Oak Ridge to help EPB gather and analyze data to find out where abnormalities and problems might arise. 

    "Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve," [Mayor] Berke said. "The Gig changed that. We are now ahead of the curve, with other cities looking to us as a leader in the Innovation Century."

    Arkansas K-12 educators are asking lawmakers to help them get faster broadband connections. Ryan Saylor with The City Wire explains how the cable and telephone company networks may be cost-prohibitive for public institutions, and why the state’s education board is hoping to tap in to public networks. The Arkansas Education Association’s president, Brenda Robinson says the schools are stuck between being mandated to provide digital learning courses and not having the resources. Current law prohibits schools from using more efficient publicly owned networks.

     “[O]ur state will not be able to fulfill our constitutional obligation of providing an adequate education for our children and the next generation will find themselves on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.'”

    Net Neutrality

    “If the Internet is to remain an open, accessible platform for the free flow of ideas, we need strong rules of the road in place to guarantee those protections.”

    Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, made a strong statement for Net Neutrality this week when he wrote a letter directly to Comcast Executive VP David Cohen asking him to come out much more strongly in favor of Net Neutrality. Sam Gustin of Motherboard had the story: 

    Leahy’s letter could increase the pressure on the Federal Communications Commission, which is evaluating whether the proposed merger advances the public interest, to require Comcast to make a strong net neutrality commitment as part of the deal.

    It also demonstrates how closely net neutrality is intertwined with concerns over consolidation in the broadband industry. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the two largest cable companies in the country, and a union between them would create a broadband colossus with immense market power.

    And then, Leahy went further. In The Capital’s Eric Hal Schwartz covered Leahy’s second letter, this time to the leaders of AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable as well. 

    Leahy said he is worried that the FCC's upcoming rule changes to net neutrality will let ISPs arrange deals for websites to pay for faster user access. That's something Leahy said he is committed to stopping and he wants the ISPs to make a legally binding promise that they won't ever engage in that practices, regardless of what the FCC rules.

    Which brings up an excellent question, says GovTech’s Brian Heaton. What does the FCC’s authority on Net Neutrality really mean? 


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    EPB estimates local businesses have saved approximately $50 million by reducing lost productivity due to power outages by 60 percent over the past two years. Those figures are impressive but Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will be working with EPB to raise them even higher.

    The Times Free Press recently reported that ORNL will send engineers to Chattanooga to optimize the use of data from the EPB smart grid. The goal will be to increase efficiency even further and to use their discoveries to help other U.S. electric utilities.

    "We have to have a more reliable electric system," DePriest said after signing an agreement Monday to work with the Oak Ridge lab on electric grid improvements. "Electricity is essential to our modern way of life and we have to figure out ways to use all the data we are gathering in a quicker and more usable manner."

    EPB's smart grid now gathers data in 15 minute increments whereas many utilities that have less sophisticated capabilities only collect data once or twice a month. EPB's system quickly discovers problems that can balloon into costly mistakes if not detected early.

    As more people use solar, wind, or geothermal power, providing electricity or purchasing electricity from consumers becomes more complicated. 

    "We need to continue to innovate and get better," said Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary for DOE's electricity delivery and energy division. "Chattanooga has been a leader and we hope this will help us find ways to make our electric grid more efficient, more flexible and more reliable."


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    Last week, we were excited at the announcement from Huntsville Utilities in Alabama. Huntsville is building a municipal dark fiber network to every premise in its territory that will be open to multiple service providers. Google has already committed to using it to bring real connectivity to the community.

    In this week's episode, 191, we are talking with Tom Reiman and Stacy Cantrell to understand the model. Tom is President of The Broadband Group, the consultant that is working with Huntsville on this project. Stacy Cantrell is the Vice President of Engineering for Huntsville Utilities./>

    We talk about how the model originated, some of the technical details behind the network, and what benefits they expect to see. This is an excellent discussion with many implications for the thousands of communities that want to improve Internet access locally but would prefer not to offer services directly.

    The transcript from this episode is available here.

    We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

    This show is 33 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

    You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

    Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."


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    In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optictriple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

    As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

    Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

    Read the transcript from this show here.

    We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

    This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

    You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

    Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."


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    Business and residential electric customers in Bristol, Tennessee are experiencing shorter power outages thanks to recent upgrades to the city’s municipal fiber-optic network. And collectively, that represents annual savings of about $6 million for electric users, according to the CEO of the Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES):

    In an opinion piece for the Bristol Herald Courier newspaper, BTES CEO Mike Browder, said a recent upgrade to the electric system, which uses the city’s fiber-optic network, has helped cut power outage time by 35 percent:

    “Our goal is less than 60 minutes average outage time per year per customer. In 2015, we exceeded that goal, reducing our outage time to 34 minutes per customer.”

    According to BTES' About Us page, customers who lose power can depend on the smart grid to alert the utility to any outages:

    Those customers with fiber services to their homes have automatic power outage detection, meaning that they do not need to make a telephone call if their power goes out. In addition, the system provides automatic meter reading and theft detection.

    Browder offered this example in his piece:

    "BTES recently had an outage that caused half of The Pinnacle, including Bass Pro Shops and Belk, to lose power. Using the fiber optic system, the BTES electric system automatically opened one switch and closed three more in sequence while testing each section of line. All of The Pinnacle had service restored in less than one minute!"

    Bristol’s Smart Network

    Reducing outage time is among a number of benefits that Bristol's 26,000 residents and its local businesses are enjoying from the city’s municipal fiber network, which it launched in 2005. The city also uses the infrastructure for fast, reliable, affordable connectivity in the community.

    Browder said BTES’s broadband division pays for most of the cost of the fiber system.

    “The electric customers pay only a small portion and experience a much more reliable electric system with more than $6 million a year savings because of the fiber optic system and the way we use it. Through this system, BTES is able to read more than half of the electric meters. This system is able to detect a power outage the second it occurs. Each substation automatically reports data and problems at the speed of light, and resolves those problems — again, at the speed of light, helping to prevent many outages altogether.”

    money1.png

    Browder also noted that the community's fiber-optic network is used to monitor its load managed water heater program. The program monitors and manages water temperature inside customers' water heaters, switching the appliances on an off automatically to save energy. The program cuts costs to BTES and customers to the tune of $1 million per year

    Other Cities Enjoy Smart Savings

    Bristol is just one of a growing number of cities whose electric utilities benefit from their connection with the municipalities’ fiber usage and monitoring. For example, in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the EPB (Electric Power Board) held electric utility rates steady for four yearsbecause it was achieving considerable savings due to the municipal fiber network.

    Morristown, also in Tennessee, has experienced significant savings in operational efficiencies and electricity consumption due to their fiber-optic enabled smart meter program.

    You can learn more by listening to Chris's December 2012 conversation with Dr. Browder in episode #24 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.


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    Eight strands of publicly available fiber optic cable made landfall on Block Island, Rhode Island this month, opening the door to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) for local businesses and residents. Local officials are moving forward with a once in a multi-generational opportunity to share an underwater cable with Deepwater Wind and National Grid. The energy companies are laying lines to the nearby Block Island Wind Farm

    A Brief History of Eight Strands of Fiber

    The island is home to only one municipality, New Shoreham, which covers the entire land mass. Block Island residents have struggled with poor utilities for more than a century. Located about 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, the island has never been connected to the mainland electrical grid or Internet backhaul network. As a result, the town of about 1,000 year-round residents has reported the highest energy costs outside of Alaska and dismal Internet speeds of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) or slower download and upload speeds that are even more lethargic.

    Local residents have put up with unreliable DSL Internet access from incumbent provider Verizon; it delivers service via microwave antennae. The island’s lack of bandwidth was the talk of the town in 2014 when up to 20,000 tourists flooded the network during the summer months:

    • “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
    • “I was on the island for two weeks in July... We have Verizon and service was practically non-existent. My husband needed to complete some work and I was trying to update web pages I manage. Only had service downtown. Even the shop owners were having difficulties.”

    Taking Advantage of the Sea Breeze

    The first U.S. offshore wind farm is changing all of that. Eight years ago, Deepwater Wind and National Grid envisioned the five turbine pilot program they named the Block Island Wind Farm. Local officials convinced National Grid to include a mainland Internet connection in its undersea cable. Block Island Times reported on their success in 2012, 

    “Deepwater will lay the cable at no cost to the town. At each end of the fiber optic cable, it would be the town’s responsibility to negotiate with a telecommunications service provider – be it Verizon, currently under fire for its DSL speeds here, or another provider.”

    Options on the Horizon

    The local government decided to move forward without Verizon. They hired a consultant in 2012 to advise the island on how to construct a publicly owned broadband network that will benefit future generations on Block Island. 

    After a feasibility study in 2015, the town issued an RFI for potential partners - Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate a publicly owned network and potentially to build it. Earlier this year, the town narrowed down its options to two models under either GWI or Crocker Communications. From the RFI response memo

    “Under both these models, the Town builds the complete (FTTP) network infrastructure, as well as the interconnection on the mainland from the National Grid cable to a negotiated point of presence for the selected provider. The Town is responsible for the fiber cable, electronics, real estate and structures. [The Town] received no responses under which the vendor would build a fiber network.”

    Solving The Island Issue 

    Block Island’s history is not unique - island communities often struggle to attract investment from larger ISPs as they are remote, sparsely populated, and often hilly. Islesboro, Maine, and Doe Bay, Washington, both suffered with unreliable, frustrating Internet connections and decided to take matters into their own hands. Islesboro’s 566 residents voted recently to bond and will build a gigabit FTTH network. Doe Bay became a self-reliant community with a fixed wireless system built and operated by its own residents

    Early projections estimate a $4.3 million expense for Block Island’s network. Local residents are set to vote on bonding specifics at a town financial meeting later this summer. 

    With the wind farm scheduled to be operational before the end of 2016 and the fiber network to be connected in early 2018, Block Island has taken massive steps towards a better future for its residents. They’ll be among the first communities in the world to power themselves with wind energy and own a next-generation fiber-optic network. 


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    Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) in Tennessee announced in September that it has launched a feasibility study to investigate ways to use a proposed fiber-optic network to bring better connectivity to members.

    Exploring Added Value

    According to the announcement, DREMC is considering investing in a fiber-optic loop to improve communications between its offices and substations. DREMC recognizes that this initial investment can be a first prudent step in considering the future of the cooperative and the vitality of rural Tennessee:

    A fiber-optic loop has been proposed to connect all offices and substations, including the co-op’s emergency operations center. This project could also provide capacity for community purposes: fiber that could be leased to other parties, even Internet-to-home providers.

    The broadband feasibility study will explore how the proposed fiber-optic loop might help improve connectivity in rural areas served by DREMC.

    Within The Confines Of The Law

    In Tennessee, electric cooperatives are prohibited from providing Internet access to residents, but DREMC still wants to use its publicly owned infrastructure for the benefit of members.

    DREMC serves the areas south of Nashville. Columbia and Tullahoma are some of the more densely populated areas and have their own electric utilities, which also provide Gigabit connectivity. Rural areas outside of the cities rely on cooperatives like DREMC for electricity; the state restrictions will keep those communities in that last century for Internet access because national providers have no desire to serve them. 

    From the announcement:

    “This is a first but very important step,” says DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson.

    “Today, so much depends on connectivity. Economic development, job creation and retention, healthcare, education, and public service are all enhanced by access to broadband Internet. But many rural households and communities do not have the connectivity they need.”

    Watson describes the situation as very similar to the mid-1930s when electric cooperatives were created to bring central station power to rural America.

    “Co-ops found ways to build power distribution systems at lower cost, using a non-profit business model based on member ownership, local control, innovation and dedication to community. We believe the same cooperative principles might be applied today to solve the broadband connectivity problem in southern Middle Tennessee,” he says.

    Action In The State Capitol?

    There is a faction of Tennessee legislators pursuing changes in state laws to improve local connectivity. Those changes focus on municipal network restrictions, but laws for cooperatives could be close behind. By investing in the infrastructure, DREMC is cleverly positioned to either lease to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or offer services directly if the law changes in the future.


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    This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits. Representatives of Midwest Energy Cooperative discuss their project to bring high-speed connectivity to rural southwest Michigan. Listen to this episode here.

    Dave Allen: I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

    Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's a project taking shape in rural southwest Michigan and the nearby regions of Indiana and Ohio. It's headed up by the Midwest Energy Cooperative. At the recent Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Minneapolis, Chris ran into Bob Hance, President and CEO of the cooperative, and Dave Allen, the cooperative's Vice President of Regulatory Compliance. Naturally, we wanted to hear more about their project and share the details with you. They provide some history and how access to high quality connectivity has positively impacted a number of their rural members. Chris, Bob, and Dave also have some interesting thoughts on federal funding programs, project standards, and the different rules for cooperatives and big corporate providers. Learn more about the project at teamfiber.com, where you can also discover more about the cooperative. Now you may notice some background noise. We apologize in advance. While we advocate for local choice and access to technology, sometimes technology is just not on our side. We had a little trouble with the mic that day. Also, Chris is suffering from allergies, and until winter sets in, he may sound a little like the late Howard Cosell, but never fear, it is our Christopher. Now, here with Chris are Bob Hance, President and CEO, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for Midwest Energy Cooperative.

    Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with two folks from Michigan. Bob Hance, the President and CEO of Midwest Energy Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

    Bob Hance: Thank you.

    Christopher Mitchell: And Dave Allen, the Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for the Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

    Dave Allen: Thanks, Chris. Good to see you out in Minneapolis.

    Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Dave, it was terrific to run into you and to learn more about your approach.

    Bob Hance: Not many people say that, Chris.

    Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm happy to be the one. Now your cooperative is really leading Michigan, in terms of delivering high quality Internet access. Can you tell us about your regions that you serve?

    Dave Allen: I can touch on the areas that we serve and set that up. Bob does a great job of talking about our history in the communication space. Midwest Energy serves twelve counties. Eight of those in Michigan, three in Indiana, and another two in Ohio. We have two distinct service areas. One in southeast Michigan, and one in southwest Michigan. The area we’re really focusing on, in terms of our initial phase of this project, is the southwest Michigan district. That scenario's characterized by Notre Dame, down in Indiana and South Bend, and you can go in a northeasterly direction toward Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan. We're those counties that fall in between that space. The area is really kind of identified by Whirlpool's world headquarters. Kellogg world headquarters is nearby in Battle Creek. We've got Pfizer up in Kalamazoo. A lot of industry that is in the area but not in our direct service footprint. The areas we serve are more rural areas, more characterized by seed corn industry, and perhaps to the south, the RV industry. My point being is that we are extremely rural. We probably serve about eight members per mile, but we do have large industry that's in the area that lives in our service footprint and really have a need for access to high speed broadband.

    Christopher Mitchell: I have to point out that after talking with some of the telephone cooperatives here in Minnesota, eight people a mile is a positive luxury in some cases.

    Dave Allen: In terms of municipals are 60-some-odd customers per mile. Investor on utilities run on the 30 members or customers per mile range. So at eight customers per mile, that's still pretty rural.

    Christopher Mitchell: I think that a rule of thumb has been that you make money when you have eleven people per linear mile or more with a private sector business plan, but not if you have less than eleven people per mile. But let's talk about your history of offering communications services.

    Bob Hance: Technically, we've been an active ISP since the mid-90's. That was all brought upon by a relationship we had with Trans World Network. We provided third party long distance, as well as ISP services through dial-up. As the Internet progressed, and people became more and more in tune with all things related to the electronic world and personal computers and the mobile devices that we have today, obviously dial-up service was just not going to be the thing of the future. So over time, we've had many, many folks who have left that to go to other options, including satellite, which we've entered in to providing terrestrial broadband, thinking that that was going to be a possible solution to the rural space that we were in, and a good replacement for dial-up. Unfortunately, we ran into problems such as limited band availability in the service territories that we were trying to serve. We had numbers of people who had signed up for that service but were let down because the capacity of the satellite just was not going to reach the demand. And even though they launched the second satellite, we ran into the same problem with that and eventually moved on to phase number three, if you will, with trying to provide rural America with some semblance of broadband. And that was broadband over power line. We were one of nine co-ops that were involved with a company called IBEC that was a single source provider of equipment and a process that would provide a signal across the power line. So an injection on our current equipment that sounded very promising as well. Unfortunately, we were two years into it and finally started to get past some of the technical issues that came with broadband over power lines when IBEC announced that they were bankrupt. That was back in December 2011. So here we have a few hundred people who had been hooked up with satellite and broadband over power line, and instead of abandoning them entirely, we just went back to the drawing board and said, "What's next?" Interestingly enough, at the same time, separate from communications, our utility folks, which includes me, were kicking around what we were going to do with respect to our needs in communications for the electric space. We have an active SCADA system. We know what's going to happen with the further smartening of the grid. So clearly utilities have been using various forms of communications between substations and their corporate offices at headquarters to get data back from the field. Eventually the light comes on and we say, "If we put in this fiber system, we take care of our utility needs, and at the same time, we can leverage that with the opportunity to replace what we've been trying to do by providing a true broadband to our membership, which married quite well together I can say."

    Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's interesting because I think almost all electric utilities are involved in communications for internal needs, but there is a split between those who see themselves purely as an electricity co-op and not interested in doing anything externally, and then those that see themselves as more technology driven and bringing the technology of the day to their members. Is that your experience?

    Bob Hance: I think you're spot on. I think those are the conversations that have been had across the country. I like to see it as we're doing what is required to continue to serve our membership in a relevant way. I'll just exercise that a little bit by saying that if not for the insistence of them for the last several years that we look at ways to provide them this service, I don't know that we would have. I think our principle responsibility and our duty is to our membership, and if the membership is asking us to consider other products and services that make being part of the rural landscape more enjoyable, more affordable, more reasonable for them, that's what we ought to do.

    Christopher Mitchell: Dave, do you have anything to add on that?

    Dave Allen: Yeah, just to add to that, we don't have an annual meeting per say, but we have district meetings where Bob goes out and engages our membership. And over the course of probably the last three or four years, the questions trended away from anything having to deal with electricity and more toward can you provide a broadband solution. We have a lot of folks out here that are on air cards. I think there are still some people on dial-up and folks utilizing satellite ... frustrations with usage allowances, with costs, with reliability, all these things that enter into the equation. They are just tired and fed up with that, so increasingly they have asked us to enter that communication space, where in all honesty, we were comfortable remaining an electric co-op. So we're a little bit of a reluctant participant. But there are a lot of things going on with respect to energy too, and Bob touched on some of the smart grid things we're doing. We have to do a better of helping people manage their energy use better, so this is one component of that.

    Christopher Mitchell: I understand that you are not alone. There are other cooperatives in Michigan that are interested in working together to improve Internet access?

    Bob Hance: We are working in conjunction with the other electric co-ops in Michigan. There are nine of us, specifically. A number of them are going through this process of evaluating from a conceptual standpoint. Maybe moving forward they are doing their due diligence. There are some surveys that have been presented to the memberships. At least three of them are fairly active in this process, but of course it takes a little bit of time for them to walk through that. I think it's promising. I think they understand that we're here to help in any way. We're the example that is on their way with already building a project, so we're a ready resource, and a valuable resource in their process. We'll see where it goes.

    Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Bob. I'm also curious if there is a difference in your members across different states in terms of appetites for delivering broadband or if the interest is pretty similar.

    Bob Hance: Chris, I think there is interest from all kinds of areas. Even those co-ops that are serving closer to the suburban areas. What everyone understands, and you get this firsthand, is when Google showed up with this whole idea of Google-fying a city, or Google-fibering a city, and that whole contest that went on for the better part of two years, raised the specter of what does this mean, fiber, and what can this provide versus what we already have. This notion of this being like the technology that passes every other technology easily and to the extent that you can say it is future-proof, it just seems like there isn't any end to the desire of folks, even beyond our memberships, that would really like to get connected to fiber. If you look at who is signing up on our website, it is probably three to one right now. So for every three members that we have signing up to take service from us, we have a person signing up that is not an electric member of ours but is close enough to see what we're doing and hoping that they can get connected as well.

    Christopher Mitchell: Interesting. You're getting pressure to expand even to people who are not members of the co-op at this point then.

    Bob Hance: Yes, very much so. It's probably one of the hardest things for us to manage toward is this demand that is outside or external to our current footprint. And the strong desire for all these other people to get connected too.

    Christopher Mitchell: I think that there are two key questions that come up. And Dave, I'd like to direct this to you first. In terms of a project like this, how do you finance it? There is a context here that rural areas have too little demand, and if you wanted to deliver high quality Internet access to them, it would be too costly. So how do you make it work?

    Dave Allen: Well, in terms of your first question, our financing the project through member equity. We reached out to USDA, RUS, the Rural Utility Service, because as Bob mentioned earlier, we were looking at our need for better communications utilizing fiber. So we talked with the RUS about improving communications, utilizing fiber through our substations, through our facilities, and ultimately to the member home, and they agreed that that was a good purpose for us to pursue. You're looking at the clean power plan in the very near future in terms of what the ramifications might be to the users of electricity. Also in the state of Michigan, looking at a new energy bill, and our need really to help people manage their energy use better going forward. So that did resonate with the RUS, and ultimately, we're financing this project through an RUS work plan loan through the electric side. That provides us with the equity to pursue this project, which is going to be deployed over five years, running about 400 miles of fiber a year. As we're connecting homes, looking at those folks that would enjoy a voice or a data drop. So it's kind of an integrated project. Again, smart grid communications first and foremost for utility purposes, and then voice and data drops beyond that.

    Bob Hance: You know our financial modeling bears the fact that we'll be cash positive after three years of building on our project, so we're very confident that despite the fact that we're in rural areas, there is an ability to realize a profit for the entity, so that beyond the five years, we can begin looking at those areas that are not an immediate part of our service footprint. It's been a very good and very positive project for us, and certainly resonates with members and non-members alike.

    Christopher Mitchell: Let's clarify though Rural Utility Service financing. This is loan financing, right?

    Dave Allen: Yeah, correct. We did receive a small, rural broadband experiment through the FCC. Bob has been very engaged in the past, advancing the notion that non-traditional providers of broadband services should be considered in the Connect America Fund, and as part of that, we applied for that rural broadband experiment, received a little more than $200,000. Probably the better part of that was just becoming eligible for the CAF phase 2 options, which will hopefully happen some time in 2017. But for the most part, yes, we are doing this through member equity, but there is an opportunity to engage CAF phase 2 and receive some funding that will really help us build out a little bit faster and perhaps consider some of the folks in those census blocks that we build out to that are not part of Midwest Energy.

    Christopher Mitchell: Bob, I really want to make this very clear for everyone, that even though it took a tremendous amount of investment to take electricity to everyone, I don't think it really cost the American tax payers very much.

    Bob Hance: I'm not trying to mix things together too much here. We have roughly $120,000,000 of plant that took us 80 years to build. What's interesting about this project is that although we are telling people that we're going to build 2,000 miles of fiber from scratch, and we're going to do it in five years, it doesn't seem to be fast enough. And the fact that it's nearly a $60,000,000 investment. So it can be done with the help of RUS, with respect to seeing the need and the opportunity, as Dave was projecting, the notion of smart grid and getting connections all the way to the home so that we can deal with in-home devices at some time in the future is invaluable.

    Christopher Mitchell: That's right. The point that I really want to hit on is that when the federal government is giving out loans, the budgetary impact is quite small compared to other programs. The electric co-ops receive billions of dollars of loans, followed by billions of dollars in repayments over many years and over decades, so the interest rate may have been subsidized, but overall, this type of program seems like a very reasonable investment.

    Bob Hance: When you think about bang for the buck, I can't imagine that there is another federal program that you could point to that has been as successful, or as deeply successful as the REA RUS program, bar none.

    Christopher Mitchell: That's what I want to hear.

    Bob Hance: You think about this over time and what was accomplished with loan dollars as you pointed out may be subsidized a little bit with respect to the interest rates, but when you see what we've accomplished and what we continue to accomplish with those loan dollars, and now carrying on the position as we did with the electric systems now with another product that is becoming more and increasingly important in the mix with respect to services to folks, we're just repeating what we did back in the 30's.

    Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned the CAF 2 dollars. That's one of the ways that the federal communications division is giving out these grants, but as we move into the final question of this show, I want to talk about the response from your members to this service. But first, let's just finish the CAF 2 discussion by noting that the FCC has just given, without any hope of repayment, these are just grants, billions of dollars to the biggest private telephone companies so that they can build out to the obsolete 10 Megabit down, 1 Megabit up standard. You all got $200,000 to deliver much faster connections. Do your members appreciate the difference between what you're doing, versus what that 10 Megabit by 1 Megabit minimum is?

    Bob Hance: Chris, I think unfortunately most folks don't get it. Most folks don't really understand what's really happening with Universal Service Fund and now CAF. I think there would be a country-wide outcry! I think you would have pitch forks and other things arriving in our nation's capital if they knew what we know. Dave and I, having gone to the FCC for the last almost four years now and seeing firsthand how quickly it is to throw $30 billion through the fan without ever giving a second thought to what we are getting for the $30 billion other than second class citizenry for our folks getting 10/1 when the rest of the country is moving toward these other standards. It's close to being criminal. I fashion it to be like you just shoved one of those metal objects into the sore part of my mouth. It's just crazy. Even with CAF 2 and the struggles we've had to help them get rules in place so that you have this stupid auction in the first place. And all the restrictions on $2 billion that they never put on the $30 billion. It's just crazy. It's ludicrous.

    Christopher Mitchell: Dave, let me jump in quickly before you respond. I just want to make sure the people understand that making loan guarantees to co-ops requires a 10% budget hit. That is to say that doing $30 billion in loan guarantees requires budgeting only $3 billion. The $30 billion that is being misused from the CAF, from the Connect America Fund, that could have wired the entire country if it was spent in co-op loan guarantees. So now, Dave, can you please pile on?

    Dave Allen: My only point in talking about the $30 billion, which has gone out the last 15 months to the price cap carries and rate of return carriers, is to point back to a conversation I had with Danna MacKenzie, who is the chief of Minnesota's broadband office, and they've set an appropriate benchmark of 25 download and 3 up, state-wide in terms of what they are promoting in the state of Minnesota, which is a national broadband standard. But of course that $30 billion went out with the only expectation that they build out to a 10/1 standard. So I had that chat with her, "Are you frustrated, are you disappointed?" And she said, "Immensely so." If the FCC from a policy standpoint had the intestinal fortitude to set that standard at 25/3, they essentially would have realized their goal well ahead of the date they had set, which I think was 2020 to hit that standard. Our frustration in going in and chatting with the FCC is, let's not set it at 10/1, let's at least set it at the broadband standard of 25/3 so that we can incent people to build out better networks like fiber going forward.

    Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting that the Minnesota requirement is not only 25 Megabits by 3, but that you also have to be using a technology that can scale all the way up to a 100 Megabits. I think that's a really good approach.

    Bob Hance: Chris, I think that's consistent with the New York standard now too.

    Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to make sure that we're wisely investing so that we don't have to spend more in three more years for a new round of upgrades on networks that we've just subsidized. But I want to end on a more positive note. Dave, can you give us a testimonial from your members explaining why this is so important?

    Dave Allen: I mentioned that when we were out in Minneapolis. We've actually taken over 100 pages of testimonials in to the FCC and left them with commissioner offices because they do resonate. They hear from us, but to hear from our members, our customers, folks in the rural space, really resonates with those folks. And even now, when we go back out there, they ask if we've updated that because we get these testimonials daily. My favorite, and I'll let Bob chime in with a couple of his, but this person from Metridgeberg said, "We're so pleased with Midwest, as we thought this service would never come down our dirt lane off of a dirt road." I think that really explains what we're doing. We're not going out to the urban areas, areas of high density. We came down a dirt lane off of a dirt road to provide this person with gigabit-capable fiber.

    Christopher Mitchell: And Bob, do you also have one that you would like to share?

    Bob Hance: The one that's striking to me is this one. Another customer that's hooked up now says, "When you live out in the country, you learn that not all things are easy. Not all things are accessible at a moment's notice. The country teaches you patience and understanding. Today, with the blink of an eye, something that I was told would never happen to the rural people, we have Internet. Not by tether of a phone or an air card with an astronomical price tag on it. Thank you Midwest Connections for being the stand up people that you said you were. I cannot tell you thank you enough."

    Dave Allen: I'd just add too, it's interesting how life-changing this is for people in our area. They have been used to poor service, dial-up service, and to have fiber optic available to them has been just amazing for them. It's taken me by surprise in all honesty.

    Bob Hance: There is a certain class of people though who live in cities and might be thinking, "What do I get out of it if they have better Internet access out there in the country?" My answer is a thought experiment. What if we did not electrify the country with the REA, the Rural Electrification Administration, and we thereby save a few billions of dollars in federal budgeting over many decades, maybe, we don't even know that we would save that much. But if we did, we would also end up with smaller markets. We wouldn't have people being as productive in the rural areas, and they would not be buying things that other people are producing. And my point is that this is not charity. It's in my self interest, as someone living in St. Paul, to make bigger markets everywhere because we're going to have a better economy.

    Dave Allen: We're seeing for the first time in our nation's history the fact that rural areas are losing population. As they continue, births aren't keeping up with the rural out-flight. As people move back to cities and urban centers to avail themselves of services like broadband, that's going to tax those urban centers from an infrastructure standpoint. That should be a concern to urban areas in terms of how to maintain roads, sewer systems, and things like that as people move back to cities.

    Bob Hance: I'd like to remind folks, but for rural electrification and now this new valuable service with respect to particularly how farms operate today, we have the food out here. We're the producers!

    Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the food doesn't just magically appear in Kansas then, I guess! That's a good reminder. I'm excited about your project, and I really want to thank you for joining us on the call. Thank you very much.

    Dave Allen: Chris, we have reminders of our past scattered throughout our office of when this co-op was constructing the lines back in the 30's. And one that's really striking to me is a lady who is reaching up to turn on that light bulb for the first time. And that's exactly what this feels like to all of us, and it's really helpful to get the kind of affirmations that we're getting from members. I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

    Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm with you. I think sometimes people say that this isn't as big as electricity, but when electricity was first rolling out, people didn't know where that was going to go either. So I think you're doing the right thing. What we have to do is make wise investments, and then let time do its thing.

    Dave Allen: I like to think that we spend once. Build once, spend once.

    Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much.

    Dave Allen: Thank you, Chris!

    Bob Hance: Thanks, Chris!

    Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Bob Hance, President and CEO from Midwest Energy Cooperative, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance from the cooperative. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family. You can do it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song "Bodacious," licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.


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    This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits. Representatives of Midwest Energy Cooperative discuss their project to bring high-speed connectivity to rural southwest Michigan. Listen to this episode here.

    Dave Allen: I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.


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    This is the transcript for episode 230 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Harold DePriest of Chattanooga, Tennessee, describes his role in building the fiber network in the city. This is an in-depth interview of over an hour in length. Listen to this episode here.


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    On November 27th, the Chattanooga area was pelted with rough storms.


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    Located in northwest Iowa, Osage has been an innovative utility leader with forward-looking investments in both telecommunications and clean energy with wind and solar. Osage Municipal Utilites General Manager Josh Byrnes joins us for Community Broadband Bits podcast 232. He is also in the midst of retiring after 3 terms in the Iowa Legislature. 


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    This is the transcript for episode 232 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, General Manager Josh Byrnes of Osage Municipal Utilities joins the show to share how fiber connectivity has benefited the Iowa community. Listen to this episode here.

    Josh Byrnes: Everything is live about it, you can lock in your commodity prices, all your inputs and all those things can be done. We've got to have connectivity, in rural Iowa.


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    Nestled in the Cherokee National Forest on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, not far from Virginia, is Erwin. Erwin Utilities runs the water, wastewater, and electricity for the town of 6,000 and long wanted to invest in a fiber network. After years of following industry trends, they developed a plan to build it and tell us how in Community Broadband Bits episode 235.


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    Publication Date: 
    February 1, 2017
    Author(s): 
    David A. Talbot
    Maria Paz-Canales

    A new article from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society takes a look at the pay in and pay off from Chattanooga’s investment into its fiber-optic network. The article, Smart Grid Paybacks: The Chattanooga Example, was written by Davd A. Talbot and Maria Paz-Canales.


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    While at the annual Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Broadband Conference, I forced Ken Demlow to be our guest on Community Broadband Bits Podcast 247. Ken is the Sales Director for Newcom Technologies, where he has worked with many different fiber-optic deployments on the ground and is a fun guy to talk to more generally.


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    Congratulations to Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber, which in April exceeded 90,000 subscribers and contributed to lower power rates for all EPB customers.

    Savings For Everyone


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    Mason PUD 3 Telecommunications & Community Relations Manager Justin Holzgrove and Public Information & Government Relations Manager Joel Myer join us for episode 274 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to discuss how they are expanding their open access fiber optic network to the public after seeing tremendous support not just for Internet access but specifically for the PUD to build the infrastructure.


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    This is the transcript for episode 274 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Justin Holzgrove and Joel Myer join the show from Mason County, Washington, to discuss how a publicly-owned network delivers high-speed Internet service throughout the county. Listen to this episode here.


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