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Next Level Networks’ Pilot Community Fiber in Los Altos Hills Experiences Growing Service Demands

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Scott Vanderlip and Next Level Networks CEO Darrell Gentry walking in Los Altos Hills

August 30, 2020 — In a neighborhood outside of Silicon Valley, amongst what native Scott Vanderlip described as “a community full of tech geeks,” residents struggled to access reliable, affordable internet, despite being able to see the headquarter buildings of some of the largest tech companies from their homes.

According to Vanderlip, chair of Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, incumbent internet providers stopped extending infrastructure to the area around 15 years ago.

“AT&T U-Verse was doing well extending fiber in the area,” Vanderlip recalled during an interview with Broadband Breakfast, “before they suddenly stopped building and began charging outrageous prices to extend service.”

As a result, Los Altos Hills, California, was riddled with pockets of extreme desperation for internet access, forcing some residents to turn to satellite providers for service.

Frustrated with the lack of alternatives available to the town, Vanderlip and other residents banded together to form Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, a network of homeowners that literally owns its own fiber-optic broadband.

The company providing the know-how and coordination for this experiment in high-capacity broadband is Next Level Networks, a Sunnyvale-based company with a visionary approach to changing fiber-optic build-outs.

Next Level Networks sees Los Altos Hills Community Fiber as a test case for its unique open access financing model of ultra-high speed, community-owned internet infrastructure.

And it is there, an area overlooking but apart from Silicon Valley, that the co-venturers are attempting to fill the gaps in broadband left by monopoly-style providers like AT&T and Comcast.

Next Level Networks’ open access model

Next Level Networks’ CEO Darrell Gentry is the brain behind the open access model utilized by Community Fiber.

Unlike a corporation where one company owns the infrastructure, operates the network, and offers internet services, open access models split this conventionally vertically-integrated service model apart.

“We adapted the co-operative approach to fiber broadband,” Gentry told Broadband Breakfast.

The Community Fiber network is owned and financed by LAHCF, an entity representing its subscribers or end users, and managed by a professional operator, Next Level Networks.

Next Level Networks was selected by LACHF to head the design, configuration, installation and maintenance of its community-owned and operated fiber optic network.

“The community owns the last mile infrastructure, members own drops to their homes, and the company provides the “middle mile” fiber backhaul,” detailed Gentry.

“We leave it to the communities to build,” he said, specifying that they expect communities to take the lead on acquiring customers, which leads to an ownership mentality.

By utilizing an open access model, LACHF has secured more control over their community’s connectivity future. And for Next Level Networks, the model ensures that projects are cash flow positive on day one.

The “barn-raising” installation of Los Altos Hills Community Fiber

A unique crowdsourcing methodology aims to drive further growth

Gentry created crowdsourcing technology to gauge interest in services in order to better understand where his service model would be feasibly implemented.

Utilizing this technology, residents are able to help drive local participation by plugging in their address in Next Level Network’s crowdsourcing web site. This then can encourage their neighbors to join.

The more users that local internet champions can get to subscribe to LAHCF, the less monthly service costs.

“We divide the cost by the users and that’s how much we charge,” Vanderlip explained. “The more users, the less expensive.”

Subscribers must pay a one-time fee for infrastructure installation, which typically ranges from $3,000 to $10,000, to connect neighborhoods to the network and extend fiber from the backbone to the home.

As the costs of many internet providers continue to climb, the cost of LAHCF will instead fall as interest grows and participation increases.

The LAH Community Fiber network currently offers 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) upload and download speeds, but it’s built to offer 10 Gpbs, which will become available as the cost of the requisite equipment decreases, according to Vanderlip.

10 Gigabits per second symmetrical connections!

Los Altos Hill’s netizens won’t have to wait for an operator to decide they have the budget to provide more bandwidth for LAHCF subscribers: The community will decide together.

Demand has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Service to the network went live in April of 2019, and just over a year in, community demand for the internet service is skyrocketing.

Vanderlip said that community interest in LAHCF has been exponential since the town’s working and schooling operations were shifted to the home by the coronavirus pandemic

Over 12 neighborhood projects have recently been launched by neighborhood champions all over Los Altos Hills.

As residents’ bandwidth demands have increased throughout the town, infrastructure put in place by incumbent providers has simply not been unable to keep up.

The increase of video teleconferencing, for example, has meant that “people’s internet has just stopped working,” Vanderlip said.

The Los Altos Hill Community Fiber solution offers manna for residents grappling with sluggish connections.

In an effort to gauge interest in the service, Community Fiber recently launched a survey to better understand local residents’ internet gripes.

Of the 46 responses received, 96 percent said that internet is either super or very important to them.

When asked whether they would be interested in joining the community fiber network, 75 percent indicated they were, while 27.5 percent expressed willingness to become “champions” to inform their neighbors of the possibility.

In an effort to quickly deploy service to neighborhoods with increasing interest, LAHCF is in the process of planning to deploy multi-Gbps radio links which can beam internet service in order to shorten the time of deployment to those in need while neighborhood interest continues to build.

A map of Los Altos Hills Community Fiber project areas

Incumbent providers have key weaknesses

Even though the federal government has put billions into bringing broadband to rural communities, there is still no broadband in many areas, Vanderlip said.

As an example that spurred his outrage at incumbent providers, Vanderlip personally asked a colleague working for the California Public Utilities Commission to look up different California addresses, including extremely rural addresses that he knew had limited service options, to see if federal monies were available.

If no money was available, it meant the monies had been spent with no viable options delivered.

For example, in Bumblebee, California, in the Stanislaus National Forest, Vanderlip sought information about a grant from the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction. But the area was ineligible as AT&T was awarded the money in a nearby city.

“They took the money four years ago and have not done anything with it,” said Vanderlip, saying the town still has zero broadband options, with some still using dial up internet. “They took $15 million and it’s just not there,” he complained. “It’s amazing what these companies are getting away with.”

Scott Vanderlip talking about Los Altos Hills Community Fiber over videoconference

Back in Los Altos Hills, the main incumbent is cable provider Comcast, which he said provides slows speeds during peak usage with wildly outdated technology.

“We should not be wasting any more money in metal-based technology-to-the-home,” Vanderlip said, criticizing incumbents who continue to install outdated coaxial cables.

Vanderlip personally got inspired about community-owned fiber after Comcast quoted him $17,000 to extend its service the distance of three telephone poles to his house.

“I thought that was outrageous,” Vanderlip said. “Comcast can charge whatever they want for these installs,” even though they are supposed to maintain a standard rate.

“This isn’t even that expensive,” said Vanderlip. The government “could bring fiber to the country for a small fraction of what they’re spending on other projects.”

Can the community fiber model work more broadly?

The case of Los Altos Hills Community Fiber may prove that, in the words of Gentry, “a community with a sufficient amount of interest can take its destiny into their own hands.”

“If I have the option to invest in my own community, I want to invest,” added Vanderlip, saying that the investment needed to bring about widespread economic prosperity in America is to bring fiber internet to everyone in the country. Next Level Networks’ open access model facilitates community champions doing just that.

Vanderlip directly acknowledged that “Los Altos Hills has the benefit of being a very affluent community.” And this leads to a critical question: Can the model be replicated in a less affluent areas?

Many communities do not have the financial mobility to get such a capital-intensive project, like this, off the ground, he said. But that is where Next Level Networks’ financing model may come into the picture.

Someone has to play the catalyst role within the community, as Vanderlip has done in Los Altos Hills. But with many eager to invest in their communities now, Next Level Networks aims to generate many more success stories in the future.

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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Open Access

‘Worst Broadband City’ Brownsville Approves Open Access Fiber Project with Lit Communities

Lit Communities will operate the network, with subsidiary BTX Fiber as the last-mile provider. HMI Utilities is prime contractor.

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Photo of Elizabeth Walker and Andres Carvallo at the city council meeting.

BROWNSVILLE, Texas, April 1, 2022 — During a special city commission meeting on Wednesday, council members voted to approve a fiber project that will bring high-speed broadband to 100% of its citizens.

Elizabeth Walker, Brownsville assistant city manager, and Andres Carvallo, CEO and founder of CMG Consulting LLC, recommended that the council authorize two respondents, HMI Utilities with Lit Communities, for a combined proposal to maximize technical and financial capacity.

Brownsville, Texas, is a city of more than 182,000 people and is one of the cities with some have called the worst broadband city in the country.  The National Digital Inclusion Alliance in 2018 listed Brownsville and a neighboring community as one of the top two worst connected cities in the country with a population of more than 65,000. For Brownsville, 47.1% of households do not have broadband of any type, NDIA found

Lit Communities, a fiber-builder that partners with municipal, county and other government entities, will operate the network, with HMI Utilities as the prime contractor. Lit Communities subsidiary BTX Fiber will be the last-mile provider on the network. However, the project will be an open network with multiple internet service providers.

Standard service on the network will be at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical.

The research for this project began nearly a year ago in April 2021 when Walker and Carvallo looked at different business models, like public policy only, public services, open access, infrastructure, municipal retail (business only and residential). They looked at these models in similar projects in Texas and across the country, including in places like Knoxville and Santa Cruz County. Eventually, they decided on an open access model.

Specifics of the Brownsville network

All citizens will have access to this broadband. “It is eight middle-mile fiber rings to address the full geography of Brownsville,” said Walker.

The city will own 100% of the middle mile and will be able to license it out in private-public partnerships to create revenue, as well as revenue from the last mile connectivity. To ensure affordability, there will be a cap on what providers can charge.

Affordability “is very important,” said Walker. “The crux of the consideration is just to not deliver access, but to make it affordable.”

This infrastructure will have a life expectancy of 50 to 100 years, said Walker.

Walker said that “evidence suggests that broadband services have a net positive economic and social impact to communities by enhancing key functions such as economic competitiveness, workforce development, training, educational capabilities, municipal operations, and smart city developments.”

This is part of the private-public partnership model of Lit Communities. The company recently partnered with Ohio’s Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative to install fiber on existing utility poles. In these projects, the municipality in question provides the capital necessary to build a middle mile or backbone network.

“We are not stopping with these initial groups of towns that we are looking at and working into right now,” said Rene Gonzalez, Lit Communities’ chief strategy officer. “It is just the beginning.”

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Open Access

Construction of Yelllowstone Fiber Network in Montana Begins Ahead of Schedule

The project will be Montana’s first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.

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Photo of Bozeman, Mont., from January 2011 by Mike Cline used with permission

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2022 ­– Montana fiber provider Yellowstone Fiber announced Wednesday that construction has begun on a $65-million network based in Bozeman, well ahead of anticipated pace.

The network, operated in partnership with large Utah-based open-access network UTOPIA Fiber (a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast), will be Montana’s first high-speed all-fiber internet network as well as its first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.

The start of construction for the privately-funded network comes only six months after initial announcement of the project.

Not only will the network connect every address in Bozeman, but it will also extend “deep into Gallatin County,” according to the developer.

Businesses are expected to receive speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second and residential properties will experience up to 10 Gbps to create what the city of Bozeman has called “the first true gigabit city in the state of Montana.” Pricing plans are expected to be announced this spring.

The first six internet service providers to provide services on the network will be Blackfoot, Global Net, Hoplite Industries, Skynet, Tri-County Telephone Associates, and XMission.

Montana is one of the least-connected states in the U.S. About a third of residents in Gallatin County, in which Bozeman is a city, lacks internet access.

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