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



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

Lewis County Public Utility District Pushes Forward with Open Access Fiber Plan

‘Getting broadband out to all rural areas and all residents of Lewis County,’ Washington.



Photo of Lewis Count Manager Erik Martin from 2016 by Justyna Tomtas from the Chronicle in Centralia, Washington

Lewis County, Washington and the Lewis County Public Utility District are making progress with their plan to deploy an open access fiber network that should dramatically boost broadband competition—and lower prices—county wide by 2026.

In November 2019, Lewis County PUD received a $50,000 grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board to study the county’s broadband shortcomings and determine whether taking direct action to address them made sense. In early 2020, the PUD formed the Lewis County Broadband Action Team to further study community needs.

Those inquiries found what most U.S. communities know too well: concentrated monopolization had left county residents overpaying for substandard, expensive, and spotty broadband access unsuitable for modern living.

In response, the Lewis County PUD announced in 2021 it would be building an 134-mile-long fiber backbone and open access fiber network for around $104 million. Around $23.5 million of that total will be paid for by a recently awarded grant by the Washington State Department of Commerce, itself made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act.

Lewis County PUD fiber map

In December of 2021, Lewis County PUD public affairs manager Willie Painter was a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast in which he discussed the PUD’s vision of deploying fiber across the county’s 2,450 square miles, which is home to about 75,000 Washingtonians, or about 30,000 households. Painter noted then how the PUD’s “shovel ready designs and estimates” is what “empowered our utility to be very competitive in going after state and federal grant dollars to help fund these construction deployments.”

The latest development to have emerged since we last reported on Lewis County PUD, is who the PUD selected as a partner to build the network. The network will be built as part of a 25-year public-private partnership with ToledoTel. While ToledoTel will install, supply and maintain a new fiber optic network connecting more than 2,300 homes and businesses in the Winlock area, Lewis County will ultimately own the final build.

ToledoTel is currently in the engineering and design phase of the project, and has stated it will provide an additional $2.35 million in matching funds for the project, which is slated to be finished before 2026.

Details of the arrangement were finalized in January, and county leaders state that ToledoTel will have exclusive access to the infrastructure for up to three years. After that, ToledoTel will be required to open the network to competitors at a wholesale rate, boosting competition and driving down costs in a residential broadband market largely dominated by Comcast.

Lewis County PUD building

Photo of Lewis County PUD building courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“There’s the convenience, there’s business purposes; all those are really vital and becoming more and more a part of everyday life, and we want to provide those services to everyone in Lewis County that we can,” Lewis County Manager Erik Martin told The Chronicle. “This project is really the beginning, in terms of getting service out to folks, and we want to focus on getting broadband out to all rural areas and all residents of Lewis County.”

2021 survey by the WA Department of Commerce found that 64 percent of state households reported download speeds slower than the base FCC definition of broadband, currently a paltry 25 megabit per second (Mbps) downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. The state is currently considering raising the base definition of broadband to 100 Mbps downstream, 20 Mbps upstream.

A local survey by Lewis County PUD found that more than 77 percent of survey respondents had broadband speeds well below the acceptable federal definition of broadband, despite nearly 98 percent of county survey participants considering broadband access an essential utility.

Lewis County is one of many PUDs in Washington State taking full advantage of a flood of new grants — and recently-eliminated Washington State restrictions on community broadband — to belatedly expand access to affordable fiber across the state.

This article by Karl Bode originally appeared on the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks project on March 13, 2023, and is reprinted with permission.

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Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.



Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022


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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.



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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