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Building Fiber Infrastructure Back Better: The Journey Taken by Tuttle, Oklahoma

When their connection to the World Wide Web was cut, Tuttle’s local leaders got to work.

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Screenshot of Tuttle City Manager Tim Young from KFOR News

August 27, 2021 – There’s an overwhelming tendency among regular Americans to conflate the basic infrastructure which surrounds us with permanence. Whether it’s the garbage truck predictably rumbling down the street at the same time every week, the water flowing from the tap, or our internet connection, we assume that the physical ties which bind us together will always be there.

And that’s because it mostly has, especially for community owned and operated infrastructure. When utility services are owned and operated by communities, they are by definition maintained by people who live locally for people who live locally. It’s hard to be taken by surprise and left without essential services.

But the odds tilt in the other direction when such services are delivered by outside firms. We’re seeing the consequences of this for electricity users in the wake of the Texas grid disaster last winter (as well as coming rumblings of heat-caused outages this June), but it’s a problem that’s been around longer than that for basic service providers of all types, where bankruptcies can leave whole communities high and dry.

The same consequences hold true when those firms are Internet Service Providers, beholden to interests outside of the cities and towns they serve. Tens of thousands of American households learned this very lesson last fall when AT&T announced it was leaving the DSL business and no longer making new connections to its aging infrastructure, even though those wires will continue to sit in the ground for decades to come. Buy a new house in this area, and if AT&T DSL was the only provider in town, and you’ve got few or no options.

But it happens with small providers too. Tuttle, Oklahoma (pop. 7,300) faced this reality a decade ago when the local cable company, providing the only universal wireline Internet service in the area, went bankrupt. “For a little while it got put on autopilot with nobody operating it,” City Manager Tim Young told KFOR News. “Then one day, right before an OU football game, the power got cut off and that was it for a cable service in Tuttle.”

The event left the city stranded without much warning. High-cost, high-lag, low-bandwidth satellite service from ViaSat was one option. AT&T offered DSL service in some parts of the downtown core, but the company “hadn’t upgraded its copper network in Tuttle in decades,” Young said in a recent interview.

The last choice was a regional Wireless Internet Service Provider named Rise Broadband which operated in the area. It had offered less-than-ideal service connecting government buildings for years (Tuttle got free service in exchange for providing access to the city’s vertical assets for hardware placement), but the problem for residents is that it was geared at rural areas around the town rather than the city proper. At the time, it was struggling to provide 3 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service because of the overwhelming demand by residents and businesses (even today, it only covers about two-thirds of the city, with maximum download speeds of 50 Mbps for $60/month).

Smart growth provided a better option

As a suburbanizing community southwest of Oklahoma City, Tuttle needed a better option. The city is experiencing rapid growth which began almost twenty years ago, since a bridge was built over the Canadian River providing a direct path to the metropolitan area in 2004. Tuttle’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan [pdf], released in 2004 when growth began, emphasized that future resiliency and success “will be contingent on its ability to adapt to changing economic conditions in meeting basic needs for the continued health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the community” while also positioning itself for “new quality growth and development.”

The nearby Braum’s Ice Cream plant remains the largest employer in city limits, with construction, manufacturing, and warehouses also playing a significant role in the local economy. But other sectors which require reliable, high-speed Internet access also contribute significantly, including educational and health services, finance and insurance, banking, and technology jobs for workers in nearby Oklahoma City.

All of these realities meant that when the local cable company went bankrupt, the remaining options were insufficient for the long-term vibrancy of Tuttle.

Building something back better

When their connection to the World Wide Web was cut, Tuttle’s local leaders rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Their first move was to solicit private ISPs to come to town and offer service. But they also began talking with publicly owned entities in the area. They spoke with officials in Sallisaw, a rural community about 180 miles directly east which had built a fiber network called DiamondNet to provide service to residents in town as well as a handful of surrounding communities starting in 2015. The city council also traveled to speak with engineers at the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, which was embarking on a fiber-to-the-home project for its roughly 38,000 members scattered across seven counties. Finally, they looked nationally, noting the success of and learning lessons from municipal networks in Oregon and Colorado.

With few encouraging responses from private ISPs, local officials in Tuttle decided building and operating their own network was an undertaking at which they could succeed. The town already had an institutional network – in the form of a fiber star – in place, built in 2012 to connect the public works and public safety buildings at the same time as construction of a new city hall.

The first hurdle was dealing with a state law in Oklahoma which prevents municipalities of Tuttle’s size from taking on debt without a citywide vote. The answer to infrastructure projects like telecommunications is the establishment of a municipal trust to secure financing and development authority. Thus was born the Tuttle Development Authority, which solved the problem while also allowing the city’s other utilities (water, sewer, and natural gas) to proceed according to their preexisting plans without the additional debt burden of the upcoming Tuttle network.

From a pilot project to permanent

Once engineering and business plans were finalized, the city began with a small pilot project aimed at a few denser neighborhoods where an internal feasibility study had projected a high take rate among residents. It was immediately popular, Young and City Broadband Manager Laurie Koelsch said in a recent interview. So popular, in fact, that it led the city to speed up construction. Ultimately, Tuttle took on $10 million in debt via private lending, using revenues from its other utility system revenues as collateral.

With firm plans to forge ahead, the city’s public works formed a new construction department to coordinate digging around the city, and served as the first stop for the new fiber network. Construction began in 2017. By November 2019 the network passed 55 percent of premises, and 800 households had taken service. Originally projected to be a five-year project, Tuttle, Oklahoma’s citywide Fiber-to-the-Home network was completed in the late fall of 2020, after just 3 years, driven by strong residential and business demand.

The Gigabit Passive Optical Network passes nearly every premises in town with the exception of a couple of small areas being built right now. About 85 percent of the network ended up being buried. The remaining aerial fiber hangs on Oklahoma Electric Cooperative’s power poles (the other electric service provider in town, whose lines run parallel on the other side of the road, is Public Services of Oklahoma). Tuttle’s design called for strand counts ranging from as low as six to as high as 288.

The network has been a success with residents since day one, but it also hit an important milestone shortly after construction was finished last December: its financial break-even point. In response, the city council announced it was lowering prices for residents, Young said. From the start, the network aimed at a 50 percent take rate. Today it meets or exceeds that threshold in almost every area (hitting an average of 54.4 percent across its footprint), and sees take rates as high as 90 percent in parts of town. Today it passes 2,864 premises, with 1,557 taking service.

While neither AT&T nor the local WISP have responded, Tuttle Fiber did play a role in spurring the local electric cooperative to embark upon its own FTTH build for its members, which will benefit surrounding communities.

We wanted to be able to provide service to everybody – Laurie Koelsch, Broadband Manager

Local resiliency means community savings

The success of the network is a testament to the intergovernmental cooperation between the utilities. Tuttle Fiber serves as the IT department for the city; this also strengthens local resiliency while keeping expertise in-house. It connects all city buildings, simplifying intradepartmental as well as citywide services, and is a stark contrast to the old fixed wireless VoIP system which, Young said, was plagued by a lack of reliability and slow speeds. Today that’s no longer a problem, and staff transitioned quickly to working from home with the onset of the pandemic last year.

The network likewise links the city library and several healthcare facilities, not only solving existing connectivity problems for the local government but giving existing and new residents who decide to settle there, businesses, and community anchor institutions world-class Internet access for decades to come.

Tuttle is ten miles wide, with the city hall situated in the downtown which is the extreme west side of the city. Many of its buildings – including fire stations and animal control – as well as much of the new residential growth and development are on the east side of Tuttle. Having a robust fiber network in place not only allows for instantaneous and robust communication, but sets a foundation for future growth. The network is beginning to explore the extra value, flexibility, and capabilities of using the network for smart-city services for its traffic signals, cameras, the installation of remote locks at parks, the deployment of public Wi-Fi, improved SCADA systems, and water/wastewater monitoring. In fact, a new wastewater plant is currently being built and Tuttle is bringing fiber as part of the project to communicate with lift stations and obviate the need for 24/7 staffing with real-time remote monitoring.

At present, Tuttle Fiber only offers Internet service. It does not connect the local elementary, middle, or high schools, which get their access via a single statewide network. It also doesn’t currently have a low-income tier, but network officials are looking into options down the road. Installation, maintenance, and most operational services are done by the city, with the exception of a second help desk which operates during the holidays and overnights maintained by an outside contractor.

Current Tuttle Fiber subscribers can choose a symmetrical 100 Mbps connection for $55/month or symmetrical 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) service for $85/month. One-time installation fees run $240, which can be paid at the start or in monthly installments for two years. This fee goes directly to the costs of the drop and Optical Network Terminal (ONT) that completes the network connection on their residences, with the city shouldering up to $1,000 per home of the remainder. For their investment, residents also get a free gigabit-capable router for in-home ethernet and Wi-Fi connections. Businesses have symmetrical 25 Mbps, 50 Mbps, and 1 Gbps tier options for $65, $100, and $200/month, respectively.

There have been challenges along the way, Young and Koelsch shared. Building telecommunications infrastructure isn’t exactly the same as other city services; there are some unique construction, legal, and operational considerations to be made, and all of it requires planning and forethought to execute well. “It was definitely a learning curve for us,” Young said, but one he’d do all over again. Part of the network’s success can no doubt be traced to Young and Koelsch’s desire to see small Oklahoma communities succeed. Koelsh was born in the nearby town of Yukon and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Oklahoma State before joining Tuttle in 2017. Young was born just ten miles northeast, in Mustang, earned degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas at Arlington, and has been in city management and community development for the last 20 years.

I believe more municipalities should take on projects like this. Fiber’s no different than water, sewer, and streets. You’ve got to have your connection to the information superhighway. When you’re a for-profit company, you don’t have any incentive to upgrade your systems unless you have competition. As a municipal government, we’re not here to make money. Our focus is to provide the best possible system for our residents and so we are always willing to upgrade and invest in those systems. – Tim Young, Tuttle City Manager

A future-proof network for the community

Today, the state of Oklahoma ranks near the bottom nationally for broadband access, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Almost a quarter of the state lacks wireline service at the FCC’s minimum speed standard of 25/3 Mbps, and more than 150,000 students did not have the service necessary to learn remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Households in rural areas are twice as likely to have no connectivity options, as are those earning less than $20,000/year: 40 percent of the latter have no Internet access (including via smartphone), compared to just 6 percent of those households making $75,000 or more. Residents of Tuttle are among the just 1 in 4 who have access to fiber service from a provider.

Tuttle, Oklahoma’s leap to action when its cable provider went bankrupt and left them stranded was not an inevitability. The city could have lobbied the local WISP provider to increase coverage and invest in more hardware to boost speeds, but the capacity, reliability, and speed (not to mention local accountability) of the resultant network can’t compare to municipal fiber. All of this sets this rapidly growing community on a path to fast, affordable connectivity for decades to come.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 17, 2021, the piece is republished with permission. Another version of the piece was originally published by the National League of Cities.

Oklahoma broadband map from Brian Whitacre, Professor and Jean & Patsy Neustadt Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics, via Oklahoma State University Extension, “Broadband Access Across Oklahoma During Covid-19” (2021).

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken is Senior Researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Networks Initiative. He is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine. Previously, Ry worked as an Adjunct Professor of American History in Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Minnesota. Ry holds a PhD in American History from Oklahoma State University. Reach Ry on Twitter @galtonsbox.

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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