All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access


Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. As 2015 approaches we know that large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.

But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.

A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access” includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.

“When national cable and telephone companies have refused to modernize their communications systems, local governments have stepped up. And in the process saved money, attracted new businesses, and made it more likely that their youth will stick around,” says Chris Mitchell, Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s (ILSR) Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

ILSR’s report is particularly timely because this week, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative “Border-to-Border program.  “We hope that before communities submit their applications they read this report to learn what others have done,” says Mitchell.

 

Cover All Hands HifijpgClick here to read and download the full report.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance presents this in-depth case study co-authored by Lisa Gonzalez and Christopher Mitchell.

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks.  You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

 

ABOUT Community Broadband Networks (http://www.muninetworks.org):

At MuniNetworks.org, we provide resources for those joining the movement to build broadband networks that are directly accountable to the communities they serve.

As more community leaders realize the economic benefits of faster, more reliable Internet services, they are pursuing local control of connectivity through public ownership, cooperative models, and other nonprofit approaches.

The vast majority of community broadband networks, particularly fiber-to-the-home networks, have lowered prices and spurred job growth in their communities. We find out what works, and help other communities replicate these results. MuniNetworks.org is a trusted voice for community networks, our team advises high-ranking broadband decision-makers, and speaks on radio and television programs in markets across the United States.

 

ABOUT ILSR (http://www.ilsr.org):

We believe we make better and more informed policies when those who design those policies are those who feel their impact.

ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to provide them with innovative strategies and working models that support environmentally sound and equitable economic policies and community development. Since 1974, ILSR has championed local self-reliance, a strategy that underscores the need for humanly scaled institutions and economies and the widest possible distribution of ownership. 

REPORT: Advantage Local – Why Local Energy Ownership Matters


Solar and wind projects can mean big bucks for communities – but only if they keep them local!

Why does ownership of renewable energy matter? Because the number of jobs and economic returns for communities are substantially higher when electricity generation from wind and sun can be captured by local hands.

Read Full Advantage Local Report:

 

This economic self-interest motivates rapid expansion of renewable energy and builds political support for a low-carbon, more local and economically rewarding energy system. This report serves as a resource, especially for communities seeking independence from big out-of-state projects like high voltage transmission lines.

Unfortunately, there are at least five substantial barriers to local ownership in the U.S. energy system:

• Tradition: in its 100-year history, the U.S. electricity grid has primarily been controlled by centralized, vertically integrated utilities that are reluctant to lose market share.

• Capital: collectively raising capital for a locally owned renewable energy project tends to run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission rules for investment that are unduly onerous for the size and scale of community-based projects.

EXEC SUMMARY GFX 1

• Cash Flow: revenue sources for renewable energy projects may come from four or more sources, complicating the challenge of making finance payments and recovering the initial investment.

• Legal: the most logical legal structures for local ownership, e.g. nonprofits or cooperatives, are often ineligible for federal tax incentives.

• Utilities: opposed to the erosion of their control of the technical and economic elements of the electricity system, utilities raise policy and technical barriers to the development of locally owned energy projects.

Fortunately, there are policy solutions to these barriers, including:

• Incentives for locally owned projects, rewarding their higher economic returns to state and community.

• Community renewable energy programs (like Colorado’s Solar Gardens) that codify and simplify the organization of locally owned projects. • Virtual net metering rules that allow the sharing of electricity output among many customers within a community.

• Crowd financing rules that remove financial and legal barriers to collective efforts to raise capital.

• Feed-in tariffs or CLEAN contracts that dramatically simplify a project’s cash flow.

• Abandoning the tax code and switching renewable energy incentives to a cash basis.

Download the report

Like what you see? Get email updates on ILSR’s energy work!

For more information, and to set up an interview with John Farrell, director for Democratic Energy with ILSR, email Rebecca Toews, rebecca@ILSR.org.

Nonprofit ISP Offers “Big Gig Challenge” To Connect Northeast Ohio


OneCommunity, a nonprofit ISP and data services provider in northeast Ohio, recently announced an interesting initiative to spur the expansion of fiber optic connectivity in the region – it will help pay the costs. For municipalities (or organizations with municipal support) that build “community-wide” networks with gigabit speed, OneCommunity is offering grant funds to cover 25% of project costs, up to $2 million. According to their website, the ISP hopes to make it’s “Big Gig Challenge” a recurring yearly program. 

OneCommunity, which has network operations in 24 counties and 2,500 miles of fiber assets throughout northeast Ohio, offers services to a wide variety of anchor institutions, businesses, schools, and local governments. The 11 year old nonprofit does not offer residential services, but does serve over 2,300 public facilities. 

In an interview with GovTech, OneCommunity COO Brett Lindsey described the “Big Gig” grant program as an “opportunity to drive fiber expansion deeper into communities that we traverse through with our middle-mile network. We thought that if we put some skin in the game, it would be the impetus to get people to act.”

Connecting to OneCommunity’s existing network is not a requirement for the grant program, but may prove useful since their long haul fiber assets are already in the ground nearby in many places. The program appears to be very flexible on the nature, scope, and scale of network proposals, as well as the degree to which OneCommunity would be involved. The idea seems to be, as Lindsey stated, “getting people to act” in one way or another. 

Lindsey also emphasized the difficulty of attracting large businesses and private investments into the economically depressed region, particularly in rural areas underserved by data connections. In 2010, OneCommunity was the recipient of a $44 million federal stimulus grant that allowed it to add over 1,000 miles of fiber in predominantly rural areas.

The “Big Gig Challenge” represents an interesting example of the kinds of opportunities a community-focused ISP can create. For smaller communities with limited internet access and infrastructure, dangling an offer of financial support could result in some interesting project proposals. In other places, it may simply get people thinking and talking about the status quo, and what ways they would like to see it change. In either case, it is a debate more communities across the country could benefit from having. As Brett Lindsey put it in the GovTech interview:

We tell city officials: You are really going to have to take charge of your own fate. If you don’t do that, you could be waiting for years — or never — to get fiber infrastructure of any significant level brought into your community. 

Letters of Interest are due by October 3rd. 

Community-Owned Dark Fiber Expands in Vermont


Last week, we criticized the draft version of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan for its conflicting goals, misplaced priorities, and all-around lack of vision. Fortunately for Vermonters, there are good things happening in the state as well: the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) and EC Fiber are partnering on a new 51 mile run of dark fiber that will bring new connection options to over 1,000 businesses and residences. 

VTA will be building the central fiber lien, which runs North-South along the I-91/I-89 corridor, and will be open to any carrier. EC Fiber, a nonprofit, community-owned open access network, will be an anchor tenant on the new fiber optic line, and will contribute $200,000 to project costs and be responsible for making last mile connections to the premises of homes and businesses that purchase them. 

The new fiber line will connect designated “Broadband Business Improvement Districts” in the towns of Braintree, Pomfret, Brookfield, North Randolph, and Sharon, making speeds of up to 400 mbps symmetrical available along the way. The project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2015, along with dark fiber projects in Reading, Stockbridge, Rochester and Hancock.   

These projects show that at least some in Vermont are aware of the need for fiber, and why the focus on new investments in last generation technologies embodied in the draft Vermont Telecommunications Plan are so misguided. 

REPORT RELEASED: Advantage Local – Why Clean Energy Ownership Matters


Solar and wind projects can mean big bucks for communities – but only if they keep them local!

That’s a key takeaway from Advantage Local: Why Clean Energy Ownership Matters, a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). The report shows that local control and ownership of renewable energy gives towns and cities a bigger economic boost than hosting wind and solar (or high voltage transmission lines) from big out-of-state (or country) corporations.

“Giving up ownership means giving up a big share of the profits of going solar, and it may mean more expensive solar for society,” says John Farrell, the lead author of the reports and director of ILSR’s Democratic Energy initiative.

 

Advantage Local explains how local ownership allows citizens to have a stake in their own energy production, and “flips the grid” toward a more democratic energy future.

When Big Utilities want to build Big Transmission lines, community members can offer more than just opposition to the plans– they now have a clear, clean solution: local renewable energy ownership.

 

Learn more:

Read the Full Report:

advantage local SG

 

 

Download the report

Like what you see? Get email updates on ILSR’s energy work!

For more information, and to set up an interview with John Farrell, director for Democratic Energy with ILSR, email Rebecca Toews, rebecca@ILSR.org.

Lexington Plans RFI for Gigabit Network in Kentucky


Lexington, Kentucky, the second biggest city in the state with the second slowest broadband speeds in the nation, has announced plans to issue a request for information for a gigabit network within the next six months. The idea is to gauge interest from private providers in forming a public private partnership and get at least a rough estimate of the costs and benefits of a city-wide fiber optic network. 

The Lexington area currently has average download speeds of 16.2 Mbps, which puts it 38th among cities in Kentucky alone. While many in Lexington have been unhappy with slow speeds, poor reliability, and high prices provided by the incumbent Time Warner for years, the local government appeared divided last spring over the potential Comcast-Time Warner merger. Some felt, inexplicably, that service would improve after the second most hated company in America was acquired by the most hated. But others realized the need for competition, and during the course of renegotiating Time Warner’s expiring cable franchise over the last year, city staff have been meeting with private providers to determine how to improve access. 

Mayor Jim Gray said he would like Lexington to become a gigabit city, though he stopped short of endorsing a fully public network along the lines of EPB in Chattanooga:   

“We’re going to be looking for partners who can create competition and who are willing to serve neighborhoods throughout Lexington,” Gray said. “Increasing our Internet speed is crucial, but so is tackling the digital divide.”

Whether or not private providers will answer the mayor’s call with a deal that works for both the city and their bottom line remains to be seen, but Gray does at least seem to grasp the need for competition to break up the local monopoly. Step 1 is admitting you have a problem – the next steps take some real (political) will. Others have given this deeper thought:

Roy Cornett, who attended Tuesday’s meeting and has been passionate about improving Lexington’s Internet speed and expanding access, said Lexington trails not only Louisville and Russellville, but Glasgow and other Kentucky cities. Cornett, an appraiser, said that some estimates show that it could cost as much as $200 million to provide the fiber-optic infrastructure to make Lexington a “gigacity.”

That might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t, Cornett said.

“We were going to spend $350 million on a new Rupp Arena,” Cornett said. “This is the most important infrastructure investment we can make.”

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion


As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

“I could walk right to it – it is the closest provider and we don’t have any broadband access!”

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 – $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon “MiFi” personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee’s anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald’s to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce’s comments, visit the FCC website.

Dakota County is Fiber Rich Thanks to Dig Once Approach – Community Broadband Bits Podcast 117


Calls for “dig once” policies have resonated for years. The general idea is that we can more fiber and conduit in the ground at lower prices if we coordinate to include them in various projects that already disturb the ground. In the south Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dakota County has been tweaking its dig once approach for more than a decade.

This week, Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp and .Net Systems Analyst Rosalee McCready join us to discuss their approach to maximizing all opportunities to get fiber and conduit in the ground. They work in a county that ranges from rural farms in the south to urban cities in the north, offering lessons for any local government.

We discuss the award-winning software they developed to coordinate projects and the many benefits of the network that have already produced millions of dollars in savings. And now the county is examining how it can use its fiber to spur economic development and investment in better Internet access for area residents.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show – please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is “Good To Be Alone.”

Making the Case for Localism: Local First Arizona


Local First Arizona models the BALLE principle of “Relationships Matter.” Like other BALLE networks, the nonprofit shows how local businesses working together can be more effective – and competitive – than those working apart.

Three New Companies Move to the Silicon Bayou


In the past few months, Lafayette has drawn in three high tech companies that will create approximately 1,300 well-paying positions. In addition to the community’s commitment to boost its high-tech workforce, better connectivity offered by LUS Fiber helped attract the new businesses.

According to a Daily World article, the most recent addition is Perficient, Inc. The information technology and management consulting company is based in St. Louis. Perficient will add 50 new positions by the end of 2015 and another 245 over the next 6 years; average annual salary will be $60,000. The area should also see 248 additional indirect jobs. Perficient leadership intends to recruit from South Louisiana Community College and University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

This past spring, CGI announced it would employ 400 high-tech employees in a new finance facility in Lafayette. CGI will also recruit from the local high-tech educational programs. James Peake from CGI told the Advocate that the company has made an effort to keep tech positions “onshore” rather than sending them overseas. From the article:

CGI Vice President Dave Henderson cited UL-Lafayette’s top-ranked computer science program and Lafayette’s growing workforce and fiber-optic network.

This past summer, start-up Enquero announced it would open a tech center in Lafayette. The Milpitas, California company plans to hire 350 new employees by the end of 2017. City officials also expect to see 354 new indirect positions. According to Bloomberg Business Week, Enquero executives considered New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and four other states.

From City-Parish President Joey Durel’s official statement:

“These are exactly the kinds of jobs we had in mind when we launched Lafayette’s fiber-optic initiative in 2004, so I am thrilled to see that companies are starting to recognize what Lafayette has to offer with its affordable, gigabit speeds…I know Enquero will not regret their decision to locate in Lafayette. This community’s investment in itself is paying off.”