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Open Access

Differences in Approach to Open Access Showcased in Discussion About Lit and Dark Municipal Fiber

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Screenshot from the episode of ConnectThis!

December 6, 2020 — Panelists involved in open access networks across the United States got into a fiery debate over the best model to follow when constructing an open access network.

The exchange occurred during Thursday’s episode of Connect This!, a series sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, director of the group’s community broadband network initiative.

The panelists agreed that cities should be able to build and own their own fiber networks and that something must be done about legislation in place in 22 states that impeded, to varying degrees, forms of municipal-owned broadband.

But they disagreed sharply over whether it is the role of cities to light fiber, or provide service over, the fiber networks they build.

Dane Jasper, CEO and co-founder of Sonic, Northern California’s largest independent internet service provider, called for emerging networks, often materializing to solve issues relating to bad internet, limited choices, and poor customer service, to copy successful open access models.

“I’ve seen a vast majority of cities be convinced by salespeople that they need to light their own networks,” effectively acting as the internet service provider, said Jasper. Instead, he recommended that cities invest in dark fiber network assets and then invite ISPs to light them.

“UTOPIA Fiber’s model has worked,” said Jasper, championing the model of the largest open access network in the United States. The network, which is based in about a dozen cities in Utah, currently has more than 15 providers offering service.

Software-provisioned open access networks

“The difference between us and UTOPIA is that right now UTOPIA has a manual open access network,” said Jeff Christensen, President of EntryPoint Networks, who detailed the specific type of software-powered open access network he said drove powered the successful open access network in Ammon, Idaho.

Ammon partnered with EntryPoint to build a software-defined, automated open access network. Christensen said the city utilizes a radical definition of “open access,” saying that the network is open in the sense that it “is a set of resources open to innovation and open to subscribers putting what they want into the network.”

In this particular open access model, the network’s subscribers independently pay for the infrastructure, the maintenance and the operation of the network, and the network’s service provider. The city of Ammon manages the customer experience, although Christensen noted that because of the resiliency and quality of the network, “with this network you’re not going to get many calls.”

EntryPoint provides an automated interaction between the network’s subscribers and service providers, using software-defined networking technology. The automation further helps pinpoint issues within the network and helps maintain transparency to the subscriber, he said.

Critical reactions from other innovative providers

Jasper and Travis Carter, CEO of U.S. Internet, whose company utilizes a more traditional and vertically-integrated approach to offering access and service, cast doubt on the Ammon model throughout the conversation.

“There may be future innovation that requires Layer 2,” or the data link layer of the Open Systems Interconnection model, said Jasper, referring to the increased innovation EntryPoint promises, “but I’m skeptical.”

Carter said he would not want to rely on the city to manage his personal internet network, noting that he has had a pothole outside his house for two years that the city is supposed to fix.

Carter also said there was a problem in how easy it is for internet service providers to register to offer services on Ammon’s network with EntryPoint’s automated software.

As long as an individual has “some level of sophistication” they are going to be able to connect to EntryPoint’s software relatively easily, and hence offer services to subscribers on the network, agreed Christensen.

Carter noted that a single ISP could rather easily dominate the market by undercutting existing competitors. This is “precisely what happened with dial-up,” said Carter. All providers “came in charging $19 a month and one company came in at $9, and up-heaved the whole market.”

“Fiber-to-the-premise networks themselves are actually very simple, yet the Ammon model adds unnecessary complexity,” said Jasper.

Mitchell jumped in to defend EntryPoint, saying the network design will lessen ISP market power and give subscribers increased capabilities. “We are going to see innovative things only possible on this type of network,” said Mitchell.

But the panelists all agreed on the importance of present consumers with better internet service options.

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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