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Open Access

Population Center in Chautauqua County May Be First City in New York With Municipal Fiber

Jamestown is hoping an open access network would make internet more affordable.

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Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist

August 18, 2021 — Jamestown – home to 30,000 residents, the largest population center in western Chautauqua County – could become the first city in the state of New York to construct a citywide municipal fiber network using American Rescue Plan relief funds.

In April, Mayor Eddie Sundquist formed a task force to assess the potential for a municipal fiber network in Jamestown. The city is currently working with EntryPoint Networks on a feasibility study to estimate the overall cost of the project, as well as surveying residential interest in building a municipally owned open access broadband network in Jamestown.

If the city decides to go through with the project, Jamestown will be the first city in New York state to embark on a municipal fiber build. Although many cities across New York state own dark fiber assets, and cooperatives in the southeastern and northern regions of the state are serving some residents, no city in the Empire State has moved forward with building a citywide fiber-to-the-home network.

Idea dating back to Sundquist’s mayoral campaign 

Connecting citizens to new technology was a component of Mayor Eddie Sundquist’s 2019 mayoral campaign, centered around efforts to enhance economic development and community revitalization projects.

“Who says that we can’t become a technology hub attracting businesses around the country with our low cost of living and rich resources? Who says we can’t wire broadband and fiber to every home and business in this city at a lower cost?,” WRFA reported Sundquist campaigning in 2019.

In an interview with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Mayor Sundquist recalled that the message was well-received by Jamestown residents, and that even pre-pandemic, city residents were calling for more reliable Internet access offering higher speeds.

Jamestown residents are currently stuck with one or two Internet Service Providers to choose from: Charter Spectrum and Windstream. In the process of conducting the feasibility study, network planners learned that the cost for Internet access in the community is comparatively high for the lower-than-average Internet access speeds residents are receiving.

With a little more than a year in office under his belt, Mayor Sundquist sees the proposed network as more than infrastructure essential to growing the economy. He considers the fiber network the key to connecting citizens to 21st century opportunities and revolutionizing the way residents connect and interact.

Impacts of open access municipal fiber

Under the open access network model Jamestown is pursuing, the city would own and maintain all network infrastructure, which the city would then lease to third-party ISPs to compete in offering Internet services to residents. Since the city would own the infrastructure, it would be able to establish basic network policies to address community-specific needs, such as prohibiting bandwidth caps or providing a service option affordable for low-income residents.

To ensure that low-income households are able to access the network, Sundquist said the city would require ISPs offering service over the network to provide a low-speed, low-cost Lifeline service option.

Throughout the pandemic, private providers refused to connect local residents with outstanding balances to free services being offered under the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, Sundquist said, echoing what he recently told WNY News.

“Just from talking to families and school kids alone, the ability to have free or low-cost internet is incredible, it is such a huge need. We’ve had so many families that had to go without because a lot of these companies refused to connect them up because of past due balances and bills.”

Although Sundquist said the low-speed Lifeline option would provide enough bandwidth for Jamestown’s residents to access virtual education and telehealth resources, Jamestown could consider taking a page from the book of Hillsboro, Oregon, whose citywide FTTH network provides symmetrical gigabit connections for $10 a month to qualifying low-income families. The city of Jamestown could also choose to model Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber network recently committed to supplying low-income households with students free 100 Mbps symmetrical connections.

Besides the benefits a municipal fiber network would have for Jamestown students, it would also be a game-changer for Jamestown’s intergovernmental operations.

The municipal network could alleviate recurring charges the city pays to lease Internet and telephone services from multiple providers. Though unsure of the exact figure, Mayor Sundquist said that nearly all municipal buildings are connected with fiber service which costs “around $500 a month per building.” As the city owns several buildings, “the costs are astronomical when you tie in phone services and Voice over IP (VoIP) services. We’re talking thousands and thousands per building,” Sundquist said.

The cost-saving benefits of a city-owned fiber network would also aid Jamestown’s municipal power plant. The city maintains a utility company which currently leases Internet service. “To be able to connect . . . our utility service or to allow our utility service to use their own connection between substations is really critical,” Sundquist said. “It [would provide] a really incredible savings to the city.”

Beyond that, the network would also assist in helping Jamestown move towards Smart City initiatives, such as digital monitoring of water and electric meters.

Prioritizing mental health with federal relief funds

Jamestown is considering using $3 million of the $28 million in American Rescue Plan relief funds the city is set to receive over the next three years to build out broadband infrastructure.

According to the city’s Recovery Funds Master Plan [pdf], the highest spending category the city of Jamestown is looking to invest in is economic development, aiming to increase tourism, retool businesses, and attract new tech companies to a “Rust Belt” city. Another priority is for the city to invest in general services to complete city construction projects that have been on hold.

Also high on the city’s spending priority list is to direct relief funds to address housing and neighborhood issues, as well as mental health issues, which have become increasingly prevalent as residents have struggled to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

Jamestown’s Master Plan reports that “in the city alone, 6.5% of all calls for service from the Jamestown Police Department are to check on the well-being of an individual. This, coupled with an increasing homeless population in the city, creates the need to radically change how we address housing and mental health disparities in our community.”

In addition to a Mental Health Rapid Response project the city will be dedicating relief funds to, investing in a municipal fiber network would also support city efforts to improve access to mental health resources.

According to Sundquist, the low-cost Lifeline service required of ISPs on the citywide network would support mental telehealth initiatives and prove valuable to residents most afflicted by the pandemic by giving them a way to access telehealth services.

The city would also be able to subdivide and segment the municipal network to support its mental health goals. “For example, if we really needed to connect with folks that needed mental health evaluations or are currently working with therapists, we could create a specialty private network off of our network,” Mayor Sundquist told ILSR.

Mayor Sundquist said he is excited about the potential of using American Rescue Plan funds to improve Internet access across Jamestown, and for the immeasurable benefits a municipal open access fiber network could bring to town.

Listen to Episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to learn more about the connectivity issues afflicting the Western part of New York state.

Check out this video on Mayor Sundquist’s effort in Jamestown.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 13, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

Contributing Reporter Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

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Open Access

In Video Session, Christopher Mitchell Digs Into Community Ownership and Open Access Networks

The conversation dealt with open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

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Screenshot of Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

September 29, 2022 – Community-owned, open access networks protect communities against irresponsible network operators and stimulate innovation, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at a Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! event Friday.

“AT&T, Frontier, these companies have a history of failing to meet community needs,” said Mitchell. “If I had a choice between open broadband fixed wireless and fiber from AT&T, I’d be really, you know, checking it out.”

“[AT&T] is a company that will sell your data at the first opportunity, it’s a company that will raise your bill every chance it gets,” Mitchell added.

ILSR’s director said that in communities in which local ownership isn’t possible, such as in a town with a deeply corrupt government, there still exist contractual provisions that can maximize local control.

A right of first refusal, for instance, gives communities the option to purchase their local network if the original provider chooses to sell. Mitchell also suggested communities write performance-based contracts that institute penalties for network partners who fail to meet clearly outlined performance benchmarks.

Conversation entered realm of open access discussion

The wide-ranging conversation also dealt with the issues of open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

 “The cities are the custodians of their rights of way – they need to be, they must be,” said Drew Clark, editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast. Because of the cities inherent role as custodians of their rights of way, Clark said that open-access networks provide cities with the opportunity to own the infrastructure portion of their broadband networks, while still offering private companies the ability to serve as network operators or application service providers.

Mitchell agreed that open access networks can be critical to broadband innovation. “We need to have millions – ideally tens of million – of Americans in thriving areas that have open access to kind of see what we can do with networks,” he said.

“Maybe a lot of those ideas won’t work out, but I think we don’t want to foreclose that path.”

In addition to overseeing digital infrastructure projects, communities can promote digital equity by utilizing established, trusted community-based institutions – such as food pantries or faith groups – to boost digital literacy and distribute devices, Mitchell said.

Mitchell added that these efforts must be ongoing: “This is more about building connections now.”

Broadband.Money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Funding

Anticipating Launch, Yellowstone Fiber to Seek Federal Funds for Rural Broadband

With service beginning in late September, non-profit fiber ISP aims to serve rural Gallatin County

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Photo of Greg Metzger in July 2022 from Yellowstone Fiber

BOZEMAN, Montana, July 27, 2022 – Officials at the non-profit internet entity Yellowstone Fiber announced Thursday that they would pursue federal broadband funding to expand network construction in rural areas of its footprint in Montana.

Because every state is poised to receive a minimum of $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, officials at Yellowstone Fiber believe they are well-suited to obtain funding to connect homes, businesses, farms, and ranches to high-speed fiber internet in the sections of the Montana’s Gallatin County north of Bozeman.

Although Yellowstone Fiber is just going live with its first customers in September – and began offering pre-sales in late July – the new fiber entity believes that the availability of funding through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program of IIJA offers a unique opportunity.

As with all states, Montana will receive a minimum of $100 million to expand high-speed broadband infrastructure to the nearly one-third of state residents who currently lack access.

Speaking about the impending launch of services on Yellowstone Fiber, CEO Greg Metzger said, “This is an important milestone for Yellowstone Fiber and we’re enormously excited to announce we’ll have the network live in a matter of weeks.”

“For decades, people in rural Montana have been limited by slow and expensive internet service and empty promises by cable providers. Today’s announcement signals we’re serious about connecting rural Gallatin County to high-speed fiber and the limitless possibilities that it brings,” he said.

Yellowstone Fiber is building an open access network, which means that Yellowstone builds, owns, and operates the fiber infrastructure, then leases space on its high-speed fiber to service providers, including Blackfoot Communications, Skynet Communications, Global Net, TCT and XMission.

In an interview, Metzger touted the role that open access networks play in enabling free market competition, including better prices, service, and reliability.

Metzger, an entrepreneur who previously manufactured plastic deposit bags for banks, sold that business and bought a furniture company in Montana.

Although he said he would rather be playing golf, when he stumbled across a new funding mechanism, he decided to create a non-profit entity designed to serve his community with fiber optic network services.

Yellowstone Fiber was formerly Bozeman Fiber, and was created in 2015 as an economic development initiative to address the lack of true high-speed broadband in Gallatin County, Montana.

A group was formed including the City of Bozeman, Gallatin County, the Bozeman School District and business leaders and funded by eight banks with a Community Reinvestment Act-designated loan.

This $4,000,000 was used to create a fiber ring connecting anchor tenants including the city, county and the school district, and also servicing the Cannery district and downtown Bozeman.

Anchor operations began in the fall of 2016, and commercial operations in February 2017. In 2020, the network formed an operational partnership with Utah-based UTOPIA Fiber to bring fiber-to-the-home services to every address in Gallatin County.

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