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Experts Debate Merits of Open Access Models on Broadband Breakfast Live Event

Keller and Heckman Partner Jim Baller says model could lead to a race to the bottom, but UTOPIA CEO disagrees.

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WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – Though open access projects are finding success in some parts of the country, some experts remain unconvinced that the model will prove viable for most communities.

During the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director and CEO Roger Timmerman and Jim Baller, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman LLP partner, debated the merits of the model that allows service providers to use the same infrastructure.

Timmerman, whose UTOPIA Fiber operates an open access model in Utah and southern Idaho, said his company has seen success with open access fiber infrastructure being a sustainable and scalable model to meet whatever demands future technology may place on consumers and businesses.

Sixteen internet service providers use infrastructure built and leased by UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, to offer residential areas up to 10 Gigabits per second symmetrical speeds.

But Baller said he is concerned that shared infrastructure will just force providers to engage in a price war that will lead to a race to the bottom. He painted a picture of an open access model whereby wholesalers who lease their infrastructure to internet service providers find themselves in a kind of purgatory where no one is making any money – the wholesaler is unable to compel ISPs to raise their prices, and the ISPs feel they can only compete by undercutting their competition. He described the situation as “open access run amok.

“I would love to see open access work, I just urge caution, because you need to do hard analysis in a particular market,” said Baller. “Open access may not be something that is possible up front, but it can be over time.

“You have to look at the numbers very carefully and assess what the circumstances are and make your decision based on what is in front of you,” he said. “There is no one size shoe that fits all in these circumstances.”

In response to the criticism that open access will drive prices into the ground, Timmerman said that the largest provider in UTOPIA’s network is also the most expensive. “It has not been a race to the bottom, it has actually been the opposite,” he said.

Timmerman added successful providers are ones “that can differentiate themselves on quality, reputation, consumer privacy,” and added that the nature of the model allows them to do so at a low barrier to entry.

Timmerman described how UTOPIA has been able to “raise the bar” on their standards for accepting ISPs to partner with, and how they have had to “beat [companies] off with a stick,” due to increased interest in working with UTOPIA.

“We want well established, successful companies because we have a lot on the hook – I cannot afford to put [these] assets at risk with some fly-by-night company. We work hand in hand with providers on quality and reputation to make sure that we both win and make sure that cities and participants win.”

For his part, Timmerman conceded that there is no “one size fits all model,” but argued that most communities’ needs can be satisfied through the framework of an open access build.

“We have had a lot of conversations with communities; what [communities] have to bring to the table and what their needs are, and how we might fill all those roles and deliver a successful system.

“The more a city wants and dictates into a project, the more skin in the game they may need to have,” Timmerman added.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the December 15, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021, 12 Noon ET — How Public Private Partnerships Represent an Opportunity for Broadband Deployment

In the past two years, public and private entities have greatly increased their collaboration to expand broadband access for Americans. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the telecom industry has been forced to find innovative solutions to connect households to essential online services. In this Broadband Breakfast Live Online event, we will explore the factors driving public-private partnerships in telecom and look at where such partnerships can take us next. Various economic and business forces underlie these partnerships. We’ll also discuss the urgent need for these partnerships in the fight to connect the country.

Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:

  • Jim Baller, Partner, Keller & Heckman
  • Roger Timmerman, CEO, UTOPIA Fiber
  • Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger, Director of External Relations, Allo Fiber
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Jim Baller is a partner at Keller & Heckman. He was founder of the US Broadband Coalition, a diverse group that fostered a broad national consensus on the need for a national broadband strategy and recommended the framework that was subsequently reflected in the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan. A consultant to Google’s Fiber for Communities project, he is also the co-founder and president of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, an alliance that works to prevent or remove barriers to the ability of local governments to make the critical broadband infrastructure decisions that affect their communities.

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.

Dwight ‘Doc’ Wininger (pronounced WINE-ing-grr) has worked on telecommunications policy issues since the 1980s, first as Executive Director of the Nebraska Public Service Commission and then for a variety of private sector providers and consulting firms. He has worked on fiber optic deployments in multiple states and has been a featured speaker at various conferences on rural broadband deployment. In his current position, Wininger is responsible for local, state and federal government relations for ALLO Communications and is also heading up market development for the company’s expansion into the State of Arizona.

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.

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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