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Onlight Aurora, Most Advanced Illinois Gigabit Communities Awardee, Shows How to Leverage Its Fiber Network

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AURORA, ILLINOIS, November 5, 2013 – Just over a year ago, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced the first of four awards under the state’s “Gigabit Communities Challenge,” an effort to raise the bar on broadband speeds in the nation’s heartland.

Of the four awardees named thus far, the Gigabit Network created by Onlight Aurora here is perhaps the most advanced. This is owing to a unique public-private partnership in the state’s second-largest city.

Other awardees in Illinois are Gigabit Squared and the University of Chicago; the City of Evanston and Northwest University; and Frontier Communications, Connect Southern Illinois and Southern Illinois University.

But the example of Onlight Aurora provides an important window into the way Gigabit Networks can help a multiplicity of purposes. These include government cost-savings, traffic solutions, and economic development options for business retention and growth.

On Wednesday, November 6, 2013, Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner will address the state of Onlight Aurora during a panel discussion at the Broadband Communities Conference on “Making Broadband Projects Sustainable: Fostering Economic Growth is Key to Building Robust Revenue Streams.”

Originally a Cost-Saving Measure

“In 2005-2006, we came to the conclusion that we were paying $500,000 a year [to telecommunications providers] for leased line expenses,” said Peter Lynch, Director and President of Onlight Aurora.

The city proposed to build a city-owned fiber-optic network, at a cost of $7.5 million, he said. At the time, the city was forecasting a minimum of 10 years payback period.

Instead, the city has leveraged:

  • A $13 million grant under the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program
  • An additional $1 million in funding under Gov. Quinn’s Gigabit Communities Challenge
  • Increasing opportunities for business revenue through add-on services available to business users.

“I can joyfully say, that we are now paying that off for its third or fourth time,” said Lynch.

Alleviating Traffic Congestion

The traffic congestion grant, which was administered through the Chicago Metropolitan Area for Planning, is a great example of leveraging a network originally designed for city communications for another purpose entirely.

The traffic grant occurred because the city had the foresight to install large number of fiber strands into conduits that it laid to build out the city network, said Lynch.

That in turn opened an opportunity when the FHA was seeking pilot cities to design programs that would alleviate auto emissions. The means for reduced emissions was to be an enhanced traffic flow because of better traffic light synchronization.

By granting the city’s traffic engineers with “access to several strands of fiber, they were able to prove out their concept on a much bigger scale,” said Ted Beck, the city’s Chief Technology Officer. “That helps the quality of our community.”

“We have been able to see better movement of traffic, which alleviates congestion and air quality,” said Eric Gallt, the city’s Traffic Engineer. The fiber loop enables city traffic officials “to see what is going on remotely, and it decreased the cost of the project by 50 percent or more.”

Planning for Broadband Success

Later, when Gov. Quinn announced the Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge in the February 2012 State of the State address, the city of Aurora was ready to take the challenge to the next step.

Quinn’s challenge grant offered private providers and communities the opportunity to obtain between $1 million and $4 million in funding by working together to promote the highest-speed connectivity available. The goal was to “unleash the savvy of our entrepreneurs, the brainpower of our academics, and the creativity of our innovators,” Governor Quinn said in the speech.

In Aurora, Lynch and Beck recounted, Mayor Weisner empaneled a broadband roundtable, from business and the government, to brainstorm how the city’s fiber-optic network could benefit community broadband centers like schools, hospitals, and libraries. The plan enables these institutions to link up to the fiber network as they contribute to its financial strength.

“Technology plays a huge part in retaining the businesses that you want to keep and targeting the companies that you want to recruit,” said Beck. “Our core vision was community-based. Our schools are in critical need of technology, but you have to have a model that is sustainable.”

Onlight Aurora’s next step is to move beyond education, health care and social services to significant commercial resale of ultra-high-speed broadband services.

 

To hear more about Onlight Aurora, visit the session at Broadband Communities Conference at 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6:

Making Broadband Projects Sustainable – Fostering Economic Growth is Key to Building Robust Revenue Streams 

The fiber will last 30 years, but will the network? In this session, our panel of experts will examine key economic-development-driven steps that communities can take to enhance revenues, control costs, and make their networks sustainable.

Leader: Drew Clark – Chairman and Publisher,Broadband Breakfast

Speakers: 

Eric Frederick – Executive Director, Connect Michigan

John Honker – President, Magellan Advisors

Bernadine Joselyn – Director, Public Policy & Engagement, Blandin Foundation

Tom Weisner – Mayor, Aurora, Illinois

 

 

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Fiber

New Public Broadband Association Criticizes NTIA Rules, Boasts Strong Start for New Group

While praising some aspects of NTIA rules, the group said that “we can’t take a victory lap quite yet.”

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Photo of (left to right) Scott Menhart of Traverse City, Bob Knight, Kim McKinley and Angela Imming at Broadband Communities Summit by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 24, 2022 – The America Association of Public Broadband on Tuesday praised many aspects of the U.S. Commerce Department’s rules for spending the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but criticized some aspects of the regulations that will make it hard for cities to build broadband projects.

In a statement and press briefing at the Mountain Connect conference here, officials representing the association said that the $42.5 billion in spending under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program will “go a long way to address the high-speed broadband access and equity gaps plaguing American communities.”

The group is chaired by Angela Imming, who is responsible for a municipal broadband project in Highland, Illinois. The other four officers of the organization represent cities of Kitsap, Washington, Traverse City, Michigan, UTOPIA Fiber in Utah, and the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

The statement and press conference were conducted by Kim McKinley, UTOPIA Fiber’s chief marketing officer and secretary of AAPB, and Bob Knight, a commissioner of economic and community development in Ridgefield and a member of the AAPB board.

But AAPB, a new lobbying group that aims to represent the interest of municipalities seeking to build high-capacity broadband, also highlighted many problems.

“But we can’t take a victory lap quite yet,” said McKinley and Knight on behalf of the group. In particular, “these challenges include a cumbersome application process with a letter-of-credit requirement which serve as steep barriers to entry for local government, nonprofits, and small ISPs.”

“Additionally, the multi-year rollout of BEAD funds leaves many high-speed broadband projects out in the cold, limiting the options for those deploying prior to 2024.”

Referring to comments that Alan Davidson, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said earlier on Tuesday, the group said, “We were pleased to hear Assistant Secretary Davidson say at Mountain Connect today that more refinement will be necessary and that the NTIA team is on the case. We look forward to working with NTIA to ensure that the interests of local, regional, and state entities are heard and acted upon.”

The association was first announced on May 4 at the Broadband Communities Summit, and the group provided updates on its progress on Tuesday.

In the three weeks since the association’s announcement, the organization said that $200,000 had been raised from the equipment vendor and non-profit community.

The group now has an advocacy and policy group that is working with federal and state leaders to advance the interests of municipal broadband, an education group, and a membership group.

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Open Access

UTOPIA’s Projects Proceeding in California and Montana, CEO Says

Both the GSCA and Yellowstone Fiber are using UTOPIA’s techniques to provide open access broadband over fiber.

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Barbara Hayes (left) and Roger Timmerman (right) speaking at Broadband Communities Summit 2022 on May 4

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 — UTOPIA Fiber’s open access model has found success in California, Montana, and Idaho as it continues to deploy across Utah, the company’s CEO said Wednesday.

“Right now, we are working with [Golden State Connect Authority] to identify various pilot areas for the project and have started preliminary engineering work to determine the initial project area,” Roger Timmerman said at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022.

During the press conference, Timmerman also pointed to UTOPIA’s expansion into Santa Clara, Utah, and its completion of its original 11 Utah cities by the end of 2022.

Timmerman was joined by partners Barbara Hayes of the Golden State Authority and Yellowstone Fiber CEO Greg Metzger as they delivered remarks on their joint ventures. The partnership will create the largest publicly owned fiber network in the US, and as it stands now, would span 38 of California’s 58 counties.

“California may be the world’s fifth-largest economy, but our state’s connectivity is decades behind,” Hayes said. “Investing in open access fiber will be transformative for California.”

Both Metzger and Hayes emphasized that their decision to partner with UTOPIA was largely informed by the company’s track record.

“We needed to have a partner who was successful and had done it before,” Metzger said. “For Montana, this is going to be a breath of fresh air.”

Yellowstone Fiber, formerly known as Bozeman Fiber, is a not-for-profit that will replicate UTOPIA’s open access model to provide broadband to the greater Bozeman region; it will own and operate the fiber but will rely on UTOPIA for assistance on the backend.

UTOPIA’s model of open access has long been a point of interest in the telecom industry. While some claim it will be a solution to the digital divide, other assert that it has merely created a “race to the bottom” where internet service providers are constantly pushed to undercut their completion. Timmerman and others have pushed back against the “race to the bottom” assertion, claiming that providers can find ways other than price to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as superior customer service. Additionally, they point to their recent track record as evidence that critics’ concerns that they can maintain a positive cash flow are unfounded.

Though UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, now has positive revenue and has served as a model for open access projects around the country, critics still point toward its more than $300 million in outstanding debt it accrued in its early days, before Timmerman was at the helm.

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Fiber

Municipalities Generally Prefer Not to Own Broadband Builds, Conference Hears

Broadband leaders note cities prefer to partner than to own networks.

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Kenrick Gordon speaking remotely, with Deb Socia, Joshua Williams and Christopher Mitchell in person at Broadband Communities Summit

HOUSTON, May 3, 2022 – During a panel discussion Monday, broadband implementation leaders said local governments are often much more willing to help a partner organization establish a broadband network than they are to oversee construction themselves.

Speaking at Broadband Communities Magazine’s 2022 summit in Houston, Kenrick Gordon, director of the Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband, said “most local governments don’t really want to own a broadband network” and prefer to partner up and support the build.

Gordon spoke alongside Deb Socia, the CEO of the Enterprise Center, a non-profit infrastructure partner based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is known as the “gig city” for its city-owned gigabit fiber network.

When asked about what makes a bad partner organization for local governments in infrastructure projects, Socia, who formerly led internet-expansion organization Next Century Cities, said those who are not trusted by members of the community will not make effective broadband providers.

Many organizations have the potential to overpromise to community members, for example giving earlier timelines for broadband builds than is required, Socia said. Gordon added it is common that the expectation among some community members is that broadband projects can be built faster than other infrastructure.

Screenshot of Kenrick Gordon, Catharine Rice, Will Aycock, Deb Socia, Joshua Williams and Christopher Mitchell

Socia said trust can be garnered from the public by using a consistent script between all involved organizations, such as utilities and city government offices, so that questions can be answered in the same manner with accurate information.

She also outlined how Chattanooga was able to promote its broadband network on trusted and popular local radio stations, increasing familiarity with it in the community through on-air discussions.

Both Socia and Gordon, as well Catharine Rice, project director for the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, stated the importance of maintaining relationships and partnerships, with Rice emphasizing the need to frequently speak to state broadband offices as they generally are quite interested in working to be helpful and improve how they do their job.

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