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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

In Video Session, Christopher Mitchell Digs Into Community Ownership and Open Access Networks

The conversation dealt with open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

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Screenshot of Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

September 29, 2022 – Community-owned, open access networks protect communities against irresponsible network operators and stimulate innovation, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at a Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! event Friday.

“AT&T, Frontier, these companies have a history of failing to meet community needs,” said Mitchell. “If I had a choice between open broadband fixed wireless and fiber from AT&T, I’d be really, you know, checking it out.”

“[AT&T] is a company that will sell your data at the first opportunity, it’s a company that will raise your bill every chance it gets,” Mitchell added.

ILSR’s director said that in communities in which local ownership isn’t possible, such as in a town with a deeply corrupt government, there still exist contractual provisions that can maximize local control.

A right of first refusal, for instance, gives communities the option to purchase their local network if the original provider chooses to sell. Mitchell also suggested communities write performance-based contracts that institute penalties for network partners who fail to meet clearly outlined performance benchmarks.

Conversation entered realm of open access discussion

The wide-ranging conversation also dealt with the issues of open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

 “The cities are the custodians of their rights of way – they need to be, they must be,” said Drew Clark, editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast. Because of the cities inherent role as custodians of their rights of way, Clark said that open-access networks provide cities with the opportunity to own the infrastructure portion of their broadband networks, while still offering private companies the ability to serve as network operators or application service providers.

Mitchell agreed that open access networks can be critical to broadband innovation. “We need to have millions – ideally tens of million – of Americans in thriving areas that have open access to kind of see what we can do with networks,” he said.

“Maybe a lot of those ideas won’t work out, but I think we don’t want to foreclose that path.”

In addition to overseeing digital infrastructure projects, communities can promote digital equity by utilizing established, trusted community-based institutions – such as food pantries or faith groups – to boost digital literacy and distribute devices, Mitchell said.

Mitchell added that these efforts must be ongoing: “This is more about building connections now.”

Broadband.Money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Funding

Anticipating Launch, Yellowstone Fiber to Seek Federal Funds for Rural Broadband

With service beginning in late September, non-profit fiber ISP aims to serve rural Gallatin County

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Photo of Greg Metzger in July 2022 from Yellowstone Fiber

BOZEMAN, Montana, July 27, 2022 – Officials at the non-profit internet entity Yellowstone Fiber announced Thursday that they would pursue federal broadband funding to expand network construction in rural areas of its footprint in Montana.

Because every state is poised to receive a minimum of $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, officials at Yellowstone Fiber believe they are well-suited to obtain funding to connect homes, businesses, farms, and ranches to high-speed fiber internet in the sections of the Montana’s Gallatin County north of Bozeman.

Although Yellowstone Fiber is just going live with its first customers in September – and began offering pre-sales in late July – the new fiber entity believes that the availability of funding through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program of IIJA offers a unique opportunity.

As with all states, Montana will receive a minimum of $100 million to expand high-speed broadband infrastructure to the nearly one-third of state residents who currently lack access.

Speaking about the impending launch of services on Yellowstone Fiber, CEO Greg Metzger said, “This is an important milestone for Yellowstone Fiber and we’re enormously excited to announce we’ll have the network live in a matter of weeks.”

“For decades, people in rural Montana have been limited by slow and expensive internet service and empty promises by cable providers. Today’s announcement signals we’re serious about connecting rural Gallatin County to high-speed fiber and the limitless possibilities that it brings,” he said.

Yellowstone Fiber is building an open access network, which means that Yellowstone builds, owns, and operates the fiber infrastructure, then leases space on its high-speed fiber to service providers, including Blackfoot Communications, Skynet Communications, Global Net, TCT and XMission.

In an interview, Metzger touted the role that open access networks play in enabling free market competition, including better prices, service, and reliability.

Metzger, an entrepreneur who previously manufactured plastic deposit bags for banks, sold that business and bought a furniture company in Montana.

Although he said he would rather be playing golf, when he stumbled across a new funding mechanism, he decided to create a non-profit entity designed to serve his community with fiber optic network services.

Yellowstone Fiber was formerly Bozeman Fiber, and was created in 2015 as an economic development initiative to address the lack of true high-speed broadband in Gallatin County, Montana.

A group was formed including the City of Bozeman, Gallatin County, the Bozeman School District and business leaders and funded by eight banks with a Community Reinvestment Act-designated loan.

This $4,000,000 was used to create a fiber ring connecting anchor tenants including the city, county and the school district, and also servicing the Cannery district and downtown Bozeman.

Anchor operations began in the fall of 2016, and commercial operations in February 2017. In 2020, the network formed an operational partnership with Utah-based UTOPIA Fiber to bring fiber-to-the-home services to every address in Gallatin County.

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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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