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Community Broadband Networks: Huntsville, Alabama, Shows Benefits of Dark Fiber Networks

Huntsville Utilities has constructed a fiber network to nearly every residence and business but not directly connected the properties.

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Photo of Mayor Tommy Battle from June 2018 by WHNT

This is the first of a six-part series, “Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity Challenges,” by Christopher Mitchell, Sean Gonsalves and Jericho Casper of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s MuniNetworks.org. See below for more information about the series.

In July 2021, BroadbandNow ranked Alabama 38th out of 50 states in broadband connectivity. Although the Federal Communications Commission’s data is known to overstate broadband deployment, there is no other source of data in most states. According to an ILSR analysis of the most recent FCC broadband deployment report (based on December 2019 data), 9 percent of Alabama households do not have access to broadband with speeds of at least 25/3 megabits per second (Mbps); 18 percent of households do not have access to broadband with speeds of 100/20 Mbps; and 64 percent of households cannot access broadband with symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps. Nearly 40 percent of those lacking access to at least 25/3 Mbps are covered by providers that have been awarded FCC subsidies to improve access via the Connect America Fund Phase II Auctions and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Alabama is one of 17 states that limit competition with barriers on municipal networks. After years of the state refusing to allow the city of Opelika to offer broadband services outside of its city limits, Opelika had to privatize its fiber network in the hopes of improving the region’s economic development.

Alabama is also home to extensive efforts by rural electric cooperatives to improve internet access, with a total of nine active rural electric cooperative broadband projects. Examples include freedom FIBER, operated by Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, and the North Alabama Electric Cooperative, among others.

Huntsville is one of several communities which own a municipal broadband system in Alabama. Others include the city of Sylacauga which offers wireless internet access across the community and fiber-to-the-home service to a substantial number of households. Scottsboro also offers internet access over an older cable network for residential service and has fiber-optic service available to businesses.

Huntsville

Huntsville, known as “Rocket City,” is the anchor of a metro population with nearly 500,000 people, an inordinate number of PhDs, and an impressive fiber network. Huntsville Utilities, owned by the city of Huntsville, serves Madison County with electricity, natural gas, and water. In 2016, the utility deployed a fiber network that served mostly those within the city’s boundaries.

Huntsville Utilities has adopted an uncommon approach, constructing a fiber network to nearly every residence and business in the city but not directly connecting the properties. Broadband internet access service providers can lease that fiber and attach customers to it, in a business model that is quite similar to open access but retains more barriers to entry than are typical with open access networks.

The first broadband internet access service provider to take advantage of Huntsville’s approach was Google Fiber, which has built a reputation for trying interesting arrangements like this and a conduit partnership in West Des Moines, Iowa. Google’s lease pays for a substantial portion of the cost of Huntsville’s network deployment, but not all of it. From the perspective of Huntsville Utilities, it gets a lot of help in paying for a citywide fiber network that it can use for many purposes, from internal monitoring of its various utilities to smart city applications. Springfield, Missouri, has since adopted this model, whereby Lumen (previously CenturyLink) competes against Mediacom, the cable incumbent, and AT&T, the telephone incumbent.

Community-led broadband networks are often assumed to be needed in areas that lack decent internet access. But Huntsville had cable and DSL and a small amount of fiber broadband service in some areas prior to the Huntsville Utilities effort. The issue was a lack of competition in the market to ensure reasonable rates, reliability, good customer service, and future investment. When announcing the network, Mayor
Tommy Battle focused on the future, saying, “If Huntsville is to remain a technological leader in this hyper-
connected global world, we must be able to offer broadband access that can accommodate the growing demands of business, research institutions, entrepreneurs, residents, and public safety.”

As the city starts to take advantage of the completed network, with the pains of building it behind them, we asked whether it has been worth it. Stacy Cantrell, vice president of engineering at Huntsville Utilities, says, “We would do this again. This has been good for Huntsville Utilities; it’s good for Huntsville and the area. We’re going to continue to see more and more benefit from this now that the build is substantially complete.”

BroadbandNow rates Huntsville as the most connected city in the entire state.

More information:

Editor’s Note: This is one of a six-part series, “Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity Challenges,” by Christopher Mitchell, Sean Gonsalves and Jericho Casper of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s MuniNetworks.org. It was originally published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, and is reprinted with permission.

Fiber

Morgan City Fiber Swap Model Catching On

A small city in Utah has some of the country’s highest speeds using a unique model of fiber sharing.

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Photo of Lynne Yocom of UDOT, Drew Clark of Broadband Breakfast, Roger Timmerman of UTOPIA Fiber (left to right)

MORGAN CITY, UT, July 28, 2022 – Utah’s Department of Transportation is leading a new model of fiberoptic sharing that enabled a rural Utah community to receive 10 Gigabits per second download and upload speeds, said experts at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online Wednesday.

UDOT owns fiber optic networks along interstate highways to connect traffic cameras, road signs, weather stations and other sensors to its traffic operation center and provide instantaneous traffic updates.

Photo of Lynne Yocom of UDOT, Drew Clark of Broadband Breakfast, Roger Timmerman of UTOPIA Fiber (left to right)

But UDOT also partners with local providers to access each other’s’ fiber lines, which allows for traffic operations and broadband service to expand across the state.

Morgan City is one such community that has benefited from this unique partnership. UTOPIA Fiber, the largest operational open-access network in the United States, partnered with UDOT to reach the rural town of Morgan on the east side of the Wasatch front and provide 10G symmetric speed to its residents.

“Morgan city has the fastest broadband speeds in the country,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director at UTOPIA Fiber. “This is the national leader – tied with other communities – that offers 10G residential service.”

UTOPIA Fiber announced its’ plans to build in Morgan City in November of 2019. The project was completed in April of 2020.

Lynne Yocom, fiber optics manager at UDOT, estimated that one third of the company’s infrastructure was self-built, with the other two thirds built by partner companies. Many states are now mimicking what is now known as the “Utah model,” said Yocom, including Maryland, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado.

UTOPIA Fiber is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Bringing Broadband to Rural America: A Case Study in Morgan, Utah

Bringing broadband to a rural community like Morgan City, Utah, is never an easy task. But in 2019, Morgan, a community on the least-populated side of the Wasatch Mountains without even a stoplight, found itself on the wrong side of the digital divide. Into the mix stepped UTOPIA Fiber, an open access network in Utah primarily serving the more populous communities on the west side of the Wasatch front. Following up on a Broadband Communities 2019 article telling the story of UTOPIA Fiber’s buildout to Morgan City, this Broadband Breakfast Live session will examine the impact of bringing broadband to this rural community. Join us at 12 Noon ET.

Panelists:

  • Steve Gale, Mayor, Morgan City, Utah
  • Lynne Yocom, Fiber Optics Manager, Utah Department of Transportation
  • Roger Timmerman, Executive Director, UTOPIA Fiber
  • Warren Woodward, Director of Broadband Service, XMission Internet
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

  • From UTOPIA Fiber: A Model Open Access Network, Broadband Communities, November-December 2019
    • The rural community of Morgan, Utah, is where UTOPIA Fiber’s vision for gradual community-by-community network expansion is most fully realized.A rural community without even a stoplight, Morgan is on the least-populated side of the Wasatch Mountains. It was left in the lurch when Comcast left town and stopped providing service. (CenturyLink’s DSL was unreliable.) But with a municipal power system, Morgan felt comfortable managing lines and poles. The community began exploring options to bring a new broadband provider to town.“The more we researched it, the more comfortable we felt about it,” says Ty Bailey, Morgan city manager. “More than economic development, this is just basic service” that the city needs to offer if no one else will. UTOPIA Fiber’s willingness to bring the open-access model to Morgan became “a really good solution for us.”
    • As with any fiber-to-the-home network, UTOPIA Fiber’s costs are a mixture of one-time infrastructure costs and ongoing costs for backhaul transport, network operation and internet services. People associated with the UTOPIA Fiber network speak of the 30 percent penetration rate as an important threshold for profitability, even in rural communities such as Morgan….
    • “We are thrilled to bring UTOPIA Fiber to our growing community,” said Morgan City’s mayor. “Our residents and businesses have been in dire need of better, faster and more reliable options for internet, and UTOPIA Fiber will be providing the best possible solution for our city.”

Steve Gale began his position as Mayor of Morgan City in January 2022. He attended high school in Morgan and married his high school sweetheart.  He is thrilled that his family has also made their homes in Morgan and are close by. He is very patriotic and loves the “Red, White and Blue.”

As the fiber optics manager for the Utah Department of Transportation, Lynne Yocom manages the he communications to traffic devices such as traffic signals, cameras, variable message signs and anything else that needs connectivity to the system. The system is a closed network of just under a thousand miles of fiber optic cable. She work with telecommunication companies to expand the UDOT network through fiber-optic trades.

Roger Timmerman has been serving as UTOPIA Fiber’s Executive Director since 2016 and has been a technology management professional in telecommunications and information technology for over 15 years. Roger has been designing and building networks throughout his career in various roles including Vice President of Engineering for Vivint Wireless, CTO for UTOPIA Fiber, Network Engineer for iProvo, and Network Product Manager for Brigham Young University. Roger earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Information Technology from Brigham Young University.

Warren Woodward is the Director of Broadband Service at XMission LC, the first Salt Lake City based Internet Service Provider and established in 1993. XMission is recognized as being the largest service provider on the UTOPIA Fiber network, a continually expanding municipal fiber project that spans 19 cities in Utah across the western United States.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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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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Fiber

Arizona City Council Approves Fiber Licensing Agreements

The city aims to connect all homes and businesses to fiber.

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Photo of John Giles, Mayor of Mesa, Arizona

MESA, Arizona, July 12, 2022 – Mesa City Council unanimously approved license agreements with fiber optic providers to bring high-speed internet access to every premise in the city, according to a press release Tuesday.

The vote authorizes Google Fiber, SiFi Networks, Ubiquity and Wyyerd Fiber to begin the permitting process to build fiber network facilities within the city’s rights of way. The vote will also work toward Mesa’s long-standing goal of bringing network connectivity to all 264,000 city premises covering 2,470 street miles.

“Reliable high-speed internet is not a luxury – it’s an essential utility like water or electricity. In the way the world operates today, no one can afford to be disconnected,” said Mayor John Giles in a statement. “These partnerships are bringing us closer to our goals of getting fiber to every home and business, increasing affordable connectivity for residents and future-proofing our city.”

Mesa, according to the press release, sent out a national request for information to learn about companies that can install and operate fiber networks across its city. The agreements approved by the city council are a direct result of the response generated by the RFI, the city said.

“Those who lack connectivity are at a disadvantage. I am proud to have voted to bring more internet options to more places in Mesa and help remove connectivity barriers in our City,” said David Luna, District 5 councilmember and member of the National League of Cities information technology and communications committee, in the release.

“A connected city is a thriving city and fiber optic is the gold standard for high-speed internet.”

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