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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.

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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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Open Access

UTOPIA’s Projects Proceeding in California and Montana, CEO Says

Both the GSCA and Yellowstone Fiber are using UTOPIA’s techniques to provide open access broadband over fiber.

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Barbara Hayes (left) and Roger Timmerman (right) speaking at Broadband Communities Summit 2022 on May 4

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 — UTOPIA Fiber’s open access model has found success in California, Montana, and Idaho as it continues to deploy across Utah, the company’s CEO said Wednesday.

“Right now, we are working with [Golden State Connect Authority] to identify various pilot areas for the project and have started preliminary engineering work to determine the initial project area,” Roger Timmerman said at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022.

During the press conference, Timmerman also pointed to UTOPIA’s expansion into Santa Clara, Utah, and its completion of its original 11 Utah cities by the end of 2022.

Timmerman was joined by partners Barbara Hayes of the Golden State Authority and Yellowstone Fiber CEO Greg Metzger as they delivered remarks on their joint ventures. The partnership will create the largest publicly owned fiber network in the US, and as it stands now, would span 38 of California’s 58 counties.

“California may be the world’s fifth-largest economy, but our state’s connectivity is decades behind,” Hayes said. “Investing in open access fiber will be transformative for California.”

Both Metzger and Hayes emphasized that their decision to partner with UTOPIA was largely informed by the company’s track record.

“We needed to have a partner who was successful and had done it before,” Metzger said. “For Montana, this is going to be a breath of fresh air.”

Yellowstone Fiber, formerly known as Bozeman Fiber, is a not-for-profit that will replicate UTOPIA’s open access model to provide broadband to the greater Bozeman region; it will own and operate the fiber but will rely on UTOPIA for assistance on the backend.

UTOPIA’s model of open access has long been a point of interest in the telecom industry. While some claim it will be a solution to the digital divide, other assert that it has merely created a “race to the bottom” where internet service providers are constantly pushed to undercut their completion. Timmerman and others have pushed back against the “race to the bottom” assertion, claiming that providers can find ways other than price to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as superior customer service. Additionally, they point to their recent track record as evidence that critics’ concerns that they can maintain a positive cash flow are unfounded.

Though UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, now has positive revenue and has served as a model for open access projects around the country, critics still point toward its more than $300 million in outstanding debt it accrued in its early days, before Timmerman was at the helm.

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Open Access

‘Worst Broadband City’ Brownsville Approves Open Access Fiber Project with Lit Communities

Lit Communities will operate the network, with subsidiary BTX Fiber as the last-mile provider. HMI Utilities is prime contractor.

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Photo of Elizabeth Walker and Andres Carvallo at the city council meeting.

BROWNSVILLE, Texas, April 1, 2022 — During a special city commission meeting on Wednesday, council members voted to approve a fiber project that will bring high-speed broadband to 100% of its citizens.

Elizabeth Walker, Brownsville assistant city manager, and Andres Carvallo, CEO and founder of CMG Consulting LLC, recommended that the council authorize two respondents, HMI Utilities with Lit Communities, for a combined proposal to maximize technical and financial capacity.

Brownsville, Texas, is a city of more than 182,000 people and is one of the cities with some have called the worst broadband city in the country.  The National Digital Inclusion Alliance in 2018 listed Brownsville and a neighboring community as one of the top two worst connected cities in the country with a population of more than 65,000. For Brownsville, 47.1% of households do not have broadband of any type, NDIA found

Lit Communities, a fiber-builder that partners with municipal, county and other government entities, will operate the network, with HMI Utilities as the prime contractor. Lit Communities subsidiary BTX Fiber will be the last-mile provider on the network. However, the project will be an open network with multiple internet service providers.

Standard service on the network will be at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical.

The research for this project began nearly a year ago in April 2021 when Walker and Carvallo looked at different business models, like public policy only, public services, open access, infrastructure, municipal retail (business only and residential). They looked at these models in similar projects in Texas and across the country, including in places like Knoxville and Santa Cruz County. Eventually, they decided on an open access model.

Specifics of the Brownsville network

All citizens will have access to this broadband. “It is eight middle-mile fiber rings to address the full geography of Brownsville,” said Walker.

The city will own 100% of the middle mile and will be able to license it out in private-public partnerships to create revenue, as well as revenue from the last mile connectivity. To ensure affordability, there will be a cap on what providers can charge.

Affordability “is very important,” said Walker. “The crux of the consideration is just to not deliver access, but to make it affordable.”

This infrastructure will have a life expectancy of 50 to 100 years, said Walker.

Walker said that “evidence suggests that broadband services have a net positive economic and social impact to communities by enhancing key functions such as economic competitiveness, workforce development, training, educational capabilities, municipal operations, and smart city developments.”

This is part of the private-public partnership model of Lit Communities. The company recently partnered with Ohio’s Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative to install fiber on existing utility poles. In these projects, the municipality in question provides the capital necessary to build a middle mile or backbone network.

“We are not stopping with these initial groups of towns that we are looking at and working into right now,” said Rene Gonzalez, Lit Communities’ chief strategy officer. “It is just the beginning.”

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