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Ownership Models Are Evolving to Serve the Unserved, Say Panelists at Digital Infrastructure Investment

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Screenshot of UTOPIA Fiber CEO Roger Timmerman from the webcast

August 11, 2020 — As America prioritizes closing the digital divide, critical last-mile digital infrastructure ownership models are expanding and differentiating to serve the unserved.

Different towns across America are in different situations in terms of the availability of existing digital infrastructure assets.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment for complete information and summaries of the sessions from the Broadband Breakfast mini-conference, which is being re-broadcast at Broadband Communities Virtual Summit.

At the conference, leaders of entities actively expanding the traditional financing, operating and managing models of networks spoke on the evolution of ownership models and the future of last-mile infrastructure.

The session was moderated by Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks program of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

UTOPIA Fiber is a broadband provider active in 16 Utah cities. It deploys and operates a fiber-to-the-premises network to businesses and households within the cities it serves.

UTOPIA Fiber utilizes a flexible approach, deploying different models depending on the setting, which enables more individuals to join the network, said CEO Roger Timmerman.

Under its typical model, UTOPIA Fiber and its member cities own and operate the middle-mile and last-mile of fiber networks, while residential customers purchase service from about 30 different competitive internet service providers operating on the network.

Because different locales have different needs, UTOPIA Fiber models the traditional open-access approach in other markets, Timmerman said.

Monica Webb, director of market development and government affairs at Ting Internet, maintained the importance of utilizing different models depending on the needs of local stakeholders.

Ting is an internet service provider that has similarly worked in many public-private partnerships, building and servicing fiber networks across the United States.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, the first market Ting internet entered, the company bought an existing fiber provider, meaning that it operates as a vertically-integrated private company within the city.

Yet in Westminster, Maryland, the local government led the effort to build last-mile fiber infrastructure. Ting then partnered with the city to operate on the network.

In Fullerton, California, SiFi Networks launched an open access network that enabled other private companies, such as Ting and Gigabit Now, to compete to deliver services.

According to Webb, open access models benefit the company by allowing them to take on less design and construction responsibilities so that they can instead focus on providing reliable service to customers.

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME Authority, spoke about the Maine initiative, an effort aimed at expanding broadband access to areas which have little prospect for access to high speed broadband.

ConnectME awards grants for last-mile infrastructure, which provide a percentage of the cost. The grants are then matched with funding from an internet service provider or a community.

According to Schaffer, ConnectME aims to build partnerships with communities and businesses to identify needs and highlight opportunities across the state.

In discussion, the group highlighted barriers to last-mile infrastructure investment.

Webb detailed how incumbent providers fought Ting when they attempted to build last-mile infrastructure in areas where incumbents had existing fiber assets.

“If AT&T has existing fiber in a neighborhood, we won’t build that neighborhood,” Webb said.

While the panelists noted the slew of obstacles in their way, they still expressed hope.

Timmerman reported that demand has vastly increased for last-mile fiber infrastructure as teleworking becomes the new normal.

“UTOPIA is adding anywhere from 900 to 1100 new customers every month,” said Timmerman. “People need this type of connectivity.”

Broadband is a street-by-street battle, he added, and creative reactive models are necessary to connect netizens to reliable last-mile infrastructure.

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.

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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.

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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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