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Bristol, Connecticut, Considers Using Rescue Plan Funds For Citywide Open Access Network

City’s technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the fiber network.

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Bristol Mayor Jeff Caggiano, who won election on November 2 and was inaugurated on November 8.

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.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

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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