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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.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Expert Opinion

Tony Thakur: Bandwidth Consumption, 5G and Rural Coverage Will Drive Fiber in 2022

In the coming year, fiber-optic infrastructure will needed to manage and offer increases in bandwidth capacity.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Tony Thakur, chief technology officer of Great Plains Communications

All indications show that we will continue to consume more and more bandwidth in support of our connected online lifestyles.

Without a doubt, the recent move to the hybrid work/learning model and the need to be constantly connected has increased internet usage. And, as video streaming, e-gaming and video conferencing grow in popularity, the drive for more bandwidth will rise.

To deliver much-needed high speed internet service to support these applications, more Fiber will be required to homes and businesses. Fiber infrastructure is capable of delivering huge bandwidth amounts at needed speeds and will be deployed throughout long haul, metro and last mile networks.

Here’s a look at what’s important to telecom networks, some of the drivers behind the rising trend to fiber, and why fiber is here to stay.

What is behind the rising trend to fiber?

There are several drivers, including:

Bandwidth-consuming applications. When multiple devices are running multiple applications simultaneously, bandwidth is quickly used up and buffering and lag can occur. Thus, networks will need to add more and more bandwidth. The FCC Household Broadband Guide cites rough guidelines for broadband speeds needed for various activities.  We can expect to see increases of speed from gigabit to terabit in the future.

5G deployments. This is another area where there is significant growth. Ultra-fast networks like 5G will require large bandwidth connectivity from the towers to the Switching Center. Fiber has become the standard for backhaul networks. We will continue to see more fiber deployed as 5G grows.

Rural coverage.  Fiber has been widely deployed in the metro areas and for long haul networks. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law November  15, 2021 includes $65 billion in funding for broadband deployment to improve internet services for rural areas, low-income families and tribal communities. With more focus on providing high speed internet, there will be more and more fiber deployments in the access or last mile across the country. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years, especially in the rural areas where access to the internet is limited to dated technologies and delivery methods. We will see more and more fiber to the home deployments as well.

Fiber technologies to be aware of

Here are some fiber technologies that not only facilitate the additional bandwidth, they simplify processes, enable automation and provide new capabilities:

GPON or Gigabit Ethernet passive optical network uses a single fiber with a point-to-multipoint architecture for the last mile to deliver higher speeds to homes and businesses. GPON was introduced several years ago, with downstream capacity of 2.5 G and upstream of 1.2 G. The newer version, XGS PON, provides additional capability with 10 G symmetrical speeds. Most deployments going forward will employ XGS PON to enable higher bandwidth and speeds.

SD-WAN or software-defined wide-area network technology has been widely adopted in the telecom industry today. Customers can obtain the security, improved performance and diversity from their premise to the cloud and other locations, leveraging multiple circuits. That connectivity can be internet, Ethernet or wireless. The technology also includes orchestration capability that simplifies the operational process. This will continue to be adapted as the workforce shifts to Hybrid remote work environments with more apps and data in the cloud.

SDN or software-defined networking is another technology used for cloud connectivity and other Ethernet-based services.  The network is connected to data centers and cloud providers to enable “on-line” type services. For example, the SDN network allows for demand-type services. Bandwidth can increase or decrease in minutes via a portal and customers pay for what they use versus the traditional monthly recurring circuit cost model.

Growing cloud connectivity

More and more organizations continue moving to and using cloud connectivity to access their applications and data that reside in cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google, Oracle, IBM, SAP, Nutanix, Salesforce, Alibaba and others. Improved performance, faster access, and more flexibility to access tools and data are merely a few of the benefits.

While some rely on the internet to reach the cloud, there are drawbacks such as latency, limited bandwidth and less than top-level security. A direct connection to cloud platforms via fiber is more secure, faster and more reliable, thus improving performance for applications and workloads.

The private cloud or data center requires significant investment to build and operate. A cloud connect via fiber enables easy access to applications anywhere in the cloud, from any location. Data can be stored at multiple locations around the world, providing better flexibility.

Staying power

Technology trends come and go. Remember when people relied on dial-up internet access and carried flip phones, Blackberries or pagers? Yet we sometimes overlook the complexity that goes into deploying new technologies. It is not only about the cool technologies themselves, but so much more. Innovation depends upon talented people who can implement services such as cloud.  Truly, it is the people that make the difference in how we successfully adapt to new technologies.

Tony Thakur is the chief technology officer of Great Plains Communications where he guides the company’s technology vision and focuses on expanding and enhancing its robust fiber network. He has over two decades of experience in C-level and senior executive roles in the telecommunications industry. Tony graduated with a Master of Science in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Florida and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas, Arlington, Texas. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Pushes into Southern Utah

The expansion will bring fiber-to-the-home to residents of two additional Utahn cities.

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Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber

WASHINGTON, January 6, 2022 – Community-owned fiber optic network UTOPIA Fiber announced in a press release Wednesday that it will implement fiber-to-the-home service in the Utah cities of Cedar Hills and Santa Clara.

The expansion into Washington County’s Santa Clara marks UTOPIA Fiber’s first expansion into southern Utah.

“We’re really excited to continue our momentum in Utah County and to venture into southern Utah where Santa Clara will become the first all-fiber city in Washington County,” said Roger Timmerman, executive director of UTOPIA Fiber.

This move marks UTOPIA’s 18th and 19th city expansions and comes with a $12 million price tag. Just last month, UTOPIA completed its network in Payson City, Utah. The telecom provides business services in 50 cities.

In all its serviced cities, UTOPIA offers residential speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second and business speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second – both the fastest respective speeds offered in the U.S. In total, the network provides fiber availability to more than 130,000 businesses and residences across its 50 serviced communities.

In its press release, UTOPIA promoted its expansion by citing research showing that residential and commercial property values increase when they are served by a fiber network. It added that its open access model, which allows infrastructure sharing with other providers, “protects a net-neutral internet without throttling, paid prioritization, or other provider interference.”

UTOPIA Fiber is a Broadband Breakfast Sponsor.

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Open Access

Experts Debate Merits of Open Access Models on Broadband Breakfast Live Event

Keller and Heckman Partner Jim Baller says model could lead to a race to the bottom, but UTOPIA CEO disagrees.

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Screenshot from Broadband Breakfast Live Online episode on December 15. Drew Clark (top-left), Jim Baller (top-right), Roger Timmerman (bottom-left), Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger (bottom-right)

WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – Though open access projects are finding success in some parts of the country, some experts remain unconvinced that the model will prove viable for most communities.

During the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director and CEO Roger Timmerman and Jim Baller, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman LLP partner, debated the merits of the model that allows service providers to use the same infrastructure.

Timmerman, whose UTOPIA Fiber operates an open access model in Utah and southern Idaho, said his company has seen success with open access fiber infrastructure being a sustainable and scalable model to meet whatever demands future technology may place on consumers and businesses.

Sixteen internet service providers use infrastructure built and leased by UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, to offer residential areas up to 10 Gigabits per second symmetrical speeds.

But Baller said he is concerned that shared infrastructure will just force providers to engage in a price war that will lead to a race to the bottom. He painted a picture of an open access model whereby wholesalers who lease their infrastructure to internet service providers find themselves in a kind of purgatory where no one is making any money – the wholesaler is unable to compel ISPs to raise their prices, and the ISPs feel they can only compete by undercutting their competition. He described the situation as “open access run amok.

“I would love to see open access work, I just urge caution, because you need to do hard analysis in a particular market,” said Baller. “Open access may not be something that is possible up front, but it can be over time.

“You have to look at the numbers very carefully and assess what the circumstances are and make your decision based on what is in front of you,” he said. “There is no one size shoe that fits all in these circumstances.”

In response to the criticism that open access will drive prices into the ground, Timmerman said that the largest provider in UTOPIA’s network is also the most expensive. “It has not been a race to the bottom, it has actually been the opposite,” he said.

Timmerman added successful providers are ones “that can differentiate themselves on quality, reputation, consumer privacy,” and added that the nature of the model allows them to do so at a low barrier to entry.

Timmerman described how UTOPIA has been able to “raise the bar” on their standards for accepting ISPs to partner with, and how they have had to “beat [companies] off with a stick,” due to increased interest in working with UTOPIA.

“We want well established, successful companies because we have a lot on the hook – I cannot afford to put [these] assets at risk with some fly-by-night company. We work hand in hand with providers on quality and reputation to make sure that we both win and make sure that cities and participants win.”

For his part, Timmerman conceded that there is no “one size fits all model,” but argued that most communities’ needs can be satisfied through the framework of an open access build.

“We have had a lot of conversations with communities; what [communities] have to bring to the table and what their needs are, and how we might fill all those roles and deliver a successful system.

“The more a city wants and dictates into a project, the more skin in the game they may need to have,” Timmerman added.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the December 15, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021, 12 Noon ET — How Public Private Partnerships Represent an Opportunity for Broadband Deployment

In the past two years, public and private entities have greatly increased their collaboration to expand broadband access for Americans. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the telecom industry has been forced to find innovative solutions to connect households to essential online services. In this Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, we will explore the factors driving public-private partnerships in telecom and look at where such partnerships can take us next. Various economic and business forces underlie these partnerships. We’ll also discuss the urgent need for these partnerships in the fight to connect the country.

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Jim Baller, Partner, Keller & Heckman
  • Roger Timmerman, CEO, UTOPIA Fiber
  • Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger, Director of External Relations, Allo Fiber
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Jim Baller is a partner at Keller & Heckman. He was founder of the US Broadband Coalition, a diverse group that fostered a broad national consensus on the need for a national broadband strategy and recommended the framework that was subsequently reflected in the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan. A consultant to Google’s Fiber for Communities project, he is also the co-founder and president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, an alliance that works to prevent or remove barriers to the ability of local governments to make the critical broadband infrastructure decisions that affect their communities.

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.

Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger (pronounced WINE-ing-grr) has worked on telecommunications policy issues since the 1980s, first as Executive Director of the Nebraska Public Service Commission and then for a variety of private sector providers and consulting firms. He has worked on fiber optic deployments in multiple states and has been a featured speaker at various conferences on rural broadband deployment. In his current position, Wininger is responsible for local, state and federal government relations for ALLO Communications and is also heading up market development for the company’s expansion into the State of Arizona.

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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