November 10, 2021 – Across New England, local-controlled, publicly-owned internet infrastructure is on the rise — from Bar Harbor, Maine to the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In Connecticut, however, it’s a different story. The Constitution State is a municipal broadband desert.
That may be changing, however, as Bristol (pop. 60,000) inches closer to becoming the first city in Connecticut to transform itself into a fountain of community-owned connectivity as city officials consider whether to use its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build a citywide open access fiber network. With $28 million in ARPA funds at its disposal, city officials have been in a months-long process of deciding how much, if any, of that money should be spent building fiber optic infrastructure.
The city’s chief technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the network, which were anticipated to be presented to both City Council and the Financial Board in August or September.
“That plan has been completed but has not been presented to City officials as of yet,” City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told ILSR in an email. “The consultants would like to present their plan in person to City officials and so we thought it might be more prudent to have them present it at an upcoming meeting of the Mayor’s ARPA Task Force. We are hoping that we can use some of the ARPA funds to fund a portion of this broadband buildout, especially in the areas of the City where we have a significant digital divide.”
Building this infrastructure would increase competition and address local concerns about the lack of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access.
“With the covid pandemic, it catapulted it to the top (of concerns),” Smith told the Bristol Press. “We have a digital divide issue in Bristol that is quite large.”
Currently, there are no fiber options available in Bristol, with Comcast, Frontier, Viasat, and HughesNet offering only cable, DSL, and satellite. And while, BroadbandNow reports that Comcast’s highest service tier offers gig speed connectivity in the region, we know that privately-owned infrastructure does not mean universal access. It’s not accessible if you can’t afford it.
The city has been surveying residents about their interest in having the city facilitate more options for internet access, with more than 500 respondents as of August.
In Bristol’s 2022 Capital Budget Summary it says:
“The City continues to pursue the feasibility of a potential city-wide network and has appropriated $250,000 of ARPA funds to evaluate an open access fiber broadband network for internet service providers to use to provide services to businesses and households of Bristol. The 2021 appropriation of $100,000 is being used to provide an overall plan and feasibility study to see if this network is sustainable and if the community wants it.”
“The city built its own fiber network to connect all its buildings and the schools,” the City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told the Bristol Press. “We already run one connected to the poles. We’re looking to try and use that as much as we can and expand that fiber out into the neighborhoods around the schools and around the city buildings with the ultimate goal of reaching the whole town.”
While the timeline is unclear, the fact that the city is seriously considering how to create a more competitive broadband market is unmistakable.
“We’re not going to become an ISP. We’d ask Internet Service Providers to compete over the infrastructure. The competition would bring down prices,” then-Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu told the Hartford Courant earlier this year. (Zoppo-Sassu lost her reelection bid for mayor this month to Republican challenger Jeff Caggiano, who was inaugurated on November 8, 2021.)
Municipal broadband networks are virtually non-existent in Connecticut, though Plainville started construction on an Institutional Network (I-Net) this summer. If Bristol follows through with building an open access fiber network and is successful, it would provide a powerful example for other communities in the state and potentially inspire local governments in other parts of the state to follow suit.
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Maren Machles, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on October 29, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.”
Construction of Yelllowstone Fiber Network in Montana Begins Ahead of Schedule
The project will be Montana’s first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.
WASHINGTON, March 24, 2022 – Montana fiber provider Yellowstone Fiber announced Wednesday that construction has begun on a $65-million network based in Bozeman, well ahead of anticipated pace.
The network, operated in partnership with large Utah-based open-access network UTOPIA Fiber (a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast), will be Montana’s first high-speed all-fiber internet network as well as its first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.
The start of construction for the privately-funded network comes only six months after initial announcement of the project.
Not only will the network connect every address in Bozeman, but it will also extend “deep into Gallatin County,” according to the developer.
Businesses are expected to receive speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second and residential properties will experience up to 10 Gbps to create what the city of Bozeman has called “the first true gigabit city in the state of Montana.” Pricing plans are expected to be announced this spring.
The first six internet service providers to provide services on the network will be Blackfoot, Global Net, Hoplite Industries, Skynet, Tri-County Telephone Associates, and XMission.
Montana is one of the least-connected states in the U.S. About a third of residents in Gallatin County, in which Bozeman is a city, lacks internet access.
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