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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).

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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