It takes a village to have good broadband

 By  Trevor Jones, OTT Communications

The transition that is currently taking place in the telecommunications industry hasn’t happened before.  For the first time, an all-new network is being built to replace the network that was there before – fiber instead of copper.  It’s a complicated job, and a very expensive one. Some private companies, like ours, have begun this transition on their own, while others are having a hard time justifying the expense, especially in rural areas.

Rather than be left behind, some rural communities like Islesboro in Maine and Leverett and Mount Washington, Massachusetts, are banding together and taking matters into their own hands.  It’s a big job, and if your town is considering doing the same, you’ll probably want to first look for a partner who is willing to build a network for you and bear most of the cost.  Lucky towns will find such partners.

If your community does decide that it needs to build and operate its own network, you have a big job ahead of you.  It will be important to break the job into manageable chunks, and get the right help from trusted partners to successfully serve your community.  Throughout this process, you’ll be tempted to take shortcuts or hand the reigns over to someone else who says they can do it all and save you the trouble.  In the long term, the best result will probably come when those leading the broadband effort in your community are more involved, and have more control over the process.

The Four Primary Roles in Building a Community Broadband Network

There are many moving pieces involved in bringing broadband service to a community, and while you could certainly divide it up more, there are four main roles involved in bringing a community network from concept to completion.  They are:

  • Broadband Committee. This is a local group of interested citizens who oversee the community broadband effort.  These dedicated individuals will interview potential providers, apply for grant funds, and administer RFP’s to choose the various contractors involved in building and operating the network and serving customers.  Members of this committee may also be chosen to head a governing board, such as the MLP board in Leverett and similar Massachusetts towns.
  • Design-Build Contractor. Sometimes the design and build functions are separate, but often the same firm that does your network design will have the trucks and personnel to build the network.  You may also want an independent Owner’s Project Manager to keep the design-build firm on task.
  • Network Operator. A network operator monitors and maintains the electronics on your broadband network.  When things aren’t working right, they troubleshoot problems and dispatch technicians when necessary, either from their own crews or third party contractors.
  • Internet Service Provider / Telephone Service Provider. On many municipal networks, like the one in Leverett, Massachusetts, a single Internet service provider is awarded a contract to provide service for 3-5 years.  The ISP provides the Internet and phone connections over the community’s network, along with ancillary services like email.   In addition, the ISP provides end-user technical support and customer service, as well as billing and collecting end-users and remitting the communities portion of the fees to the town.

Why One Stop Shopping May Not Be Ideal for Community Broadband Networks

Having a separate builder, operator, and ISP may seem like a lot of extra work, but you may want to consider the added effort in the best interest of your community. Just like you will want to connect your town to the Internet with diverse middle-mile connections in order to ensure reliability, having some diversity in your service providers gives you added flexibility and security over the long run.

For example, having a Network Operator that is independent from your design-build contractor provides a level of experienced, third-party oversight to protect the quality of the network being built.  The eventual operator has not only the expertise, but also a vested interest in ensuring that the network is well designed and built.

Alternately, having different entities perform the Network Operator and ISP functions on your community network will facilitate smoother transitions should you decide you need to make a change in either the network operator or the ISP.  In such situations, you have a trusted partner with their own records, systems, and expertise to help support the transition.  Things might not go so well if you only have one partner and they’re less than cooperative because they’re losing your business.   Case in point: we were able to effect a seamless transition from the prior ISP in Leverett, MA, thanks in part to the support of Holyoke Gas and Electric, the network operator in Leverett.

Need Help Planning Your Community Network Initiative?

We’d love to help.  If you’re thinking of applying for grants from the ConnectME Authority, the Massacutsetts Broadband Institute, or another state or Federal agency to assist in planning a broadband project, let us know!  We also encourage you to download our free Municipal Broadband Primer.

This post originally appeared in the OTT Communications Blog.

High speed ahead: South Portland joins Rockport in upgrading its fiber optic network

High speed ahead: South Portland joins Rockport in upgrading its fiber optic network

By James McCarthy, MaineBiz

Chris Dumais at South Portland City Hall

Chris Dumais at South Portland City Hall. Photo by Tim Greenway, MaineBiz.

Bob O’Brien, one of the owners of the Noyes Hall & Allen Insurance Co. in South Portland, readily admits an insurance company don’t necessarily require the kind of bandwidth that the local tel

evision production company Lone Wolf Media might need for uploading videos to clients ranging from National Geographic to “Nova.”

Yet, because he also serves on the city’s economic development committee, O’Brien says the recent installation of a fiber optic one-gigabit-per-second Internet network in his neighborhood is great news, even if the benefits might prove modest for an insurance company.

“We’re definitely looking forward to improved speed and greater reliability,” he says. “I really do see it as an economic development tool. Right now, we’re only the second town in Maine to do this. It makes us stand out. It’s great that a lot of folks at City Hall thought outside of the box to make this happen.”

One of those out-of-the-box thinkers is Chris Dumais, the city’s director of information technology, who credits City Manager James Gailey and former Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings . . .

Read the full article at MaineBiz.biz

GWI and South Portland hit key milestone in public/private partnership

Chris Dumais presents fiber map.

Chris Dumais presents a map of Phase 1 of South Portland’s high speed fiber network at last fall’s press conference.

(South Portland, Maine) – The City of South Portland announced this morning that it is ready for Internet services provider GWI to hand over access to a fiber-optic, gigabit-per-second Internet network that can serve both business and residential customers within the City.

“I’ve notified our previous fiber optic provider that we’re ready to switch over the City’s connections, and I expect that process will be finished within a couple of weeks,” said Chris Dumais, South Portland’s Director of Information Technology. “Not only are we facilitating a network that can offer upload and download speeds of up to one gigabit, but we will also be saving the City $2,100 a month in operational costs. That’s about a half million in savings during the life of our agreement with GWI.”

Entering into a public-private partnership with GWI (www.gwi.net), the winning bidder in response a Request For Proposals (RFP), the City has begun a three-phase project that will bring approximately four miles of optical fiber, and ultra high-speed Internet service, to a significant portion of South Portland. The first phase connected Maine’s “3-Ring Binder” to the Mill Creek, Knightville Ocean Avenue, Highland Avenue and Evans Avenue corridors; the second phase, whose funding is pending, will connect the James Baka Drive, Western Avenue, Westbrook Street and Wescott Road corridors; and a third phase, ready to start now, will expand the network even farther down Highland Avenue, to the new Municipal Services Facility. The City is contemplating additional phases, as funding becomes available.

GWI reported today that it is in the middle of contracting and scheduling customer hook-ups to the new service. Fletcher Kittredge, the company’s founder and CEO, said South Portland’s willingness to think like an entrepreneur was crucial to the successful launch. “Unlike the system we built in Rockport, which the town owns, South Portland city decided to lease,” Kittredge said. “They’re excited about this new infrastructure, because it sets South Portland apart and gives the city a crucial advantage in attracting and retaining businesses that need to move large amounts of data.

“South Portland’s leaders have demonstrated that nimble, cost-effective and creative solutions are possible when your goal is to provide world-class Internet service. I suspect that this model will be examined closely by many other towns and cities in Maine.”

Dumais said South Portland’s project is in harmony with its Comprehensive Plan. The City signed a contract with GWI for $150,000 that will secure connection of city facilities, with a long-term lease. Although GWI owns the network, it is an “open network,” meaning other Internet provider will have fair access to the fiber, a condition that both the City and GWI view as an important feature to promote competition. GWI will share a portion of revenues it obtains from use of the network with the City, and has invested $70,000 to connect to its own network and make the network ready for residential connections.

MEDIA CONTACT:

Chris Dumais, S. Portland IT Director, cdumais@southportland.org, 207-767-7681

A Fiber & Wireless Sandwich: Rural Broadband Deployment

By Fletcher Kittredge of GWI:

I’m often asked “Which are better, wireless or wired Internet connections?” From a technical perspective, the question doesn’t make much sense. They are complementary, not competitive. As transmission media, fiber and wireless both have unique advantages and disadvantages. In building an Internet network, a design that takes advantage of the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of both results in the best system.

The fundamental insight that made the Internet is “transmission protocols should be media independent.” Before the Internet, protocols were optimized for a particular transmission medium and only worked on that medium. A wireless network would have a wireless protocol, a telephone network would have a telephone protocol and a cable network would have a cable protocol. It was not possible to send data between networks. The Internet protocols let data be sent between networks and allowed the same software to be used no matter what the network, effectively creating one large network.

This paradigm shift allowed network architects to design networks using whatever media best suited a particular geographic area. It became possible to use fiber, copper wires, and wireless in the same network. Though it dominates in legacy networks, the inherent drawbacks of copper wire severely limit its use in new networks. Generally, fiber optic cable is used instead because it is far faster, cheaper, lighter, smaller, non-conductive, and inert.

The strengths and weaknesses of wireless and wired connections dictate how they work together.

A fixed wireless tower on Benner Hill in the Midcoast.Wireless and fiber optic cable have very different transmission characteristics. A fiber optic connection is much faster and much more reliable than a wireless connection. Fiber also has a longer lifespan, depreciating over 20 or more years whereas most wireless equipment will need to be replaced in five years. Lastly, fiber is more secure than wireless because fiber is much more difficult to tap without detection.  For its part, wireless is most useful for mobility. We couldn’t have smartphones, tablets, and laptops without mobile wireless connections never mind drones and self-driving cars. Wireless also has a cost advantage in locations where it is expensive to string fiber optic cable. These traits dictate how the networks are best used together.

Speed, reliability, and security can all be improved in wireless networks by shortening the distance between the transmitter and the receiver. This is why most networks employ fiber as far as they can, and wireless for the last bit. Examples of this architecture are fiber to a cell tower, then wireless to a smart phone, fiber to a business, then wireless to a laptop, fiber to a home and wireless to a tablet, fiber to the farm and wireless to sensors and equipment.

The cost advantages of wireless are compelling in sparsely populated areas.  In rural Maine, there are locations where the best way to provide connectivity may be fiber to a tower, then a fixed wireless connection to remote homes, farms, and businesses. This is because the cost of fiber is directly related to the density of connections. The farther you have to string the fiber between locations, the greater the cost per location. Another compelling application of wireless in Maine is in bringing broadband to islands, where the cost of laying undersea fiber is often prohibitive.

Broadband policy decisions must balance the need for bandwidth with cost, at least in the short term.

Where wireless is used versus fiber is a judgment call. The judgment is to balance the cost versus the speed, security, and reliability required. If private money funds the system, the judgment is not that difficult. However, if public money is used, the interests of the majority, which bears the cost, can differ from the rural users, who care more about the speed, reliability, and security of their connections.

There are passionate arguments between rural residents who feel they deserve connections as good as in urban areas and urban folks who feel that they should not be asked to subsidize high cost areas.  These urban residents often say that their rural counterparts should accept slower, less reliable, less secure connections as a cost of living in the country. In these arguments, I am struck that it is a continuum where fine-grain engineering choices can be made based on the practicalities of location.

Mainers are going to have to decide whether rural Maine should get a network as good as in urban areas, but the decisions should be seen as points on a time-line. If a decision is made that a certain region is to be served via wireless now, it doesn’t mean that fiber can’t be deployed at a later date, perhaps when in five years when the wireless equipment is due to be replaced.

It’s not appropriate to try and make an either-or decision to use fiber or wireless. Both will be needed to build the best network for Maine.  Much like peanut butter and jelly, they work best together.

 

Let’s partner up for Maine’s future

It’s hard to actually quantify such things, but it’s fair to say that Maine people, by and large, love living and working in Maine. It’s just the way we are. We love Maine’s natural beauty, its heritage, it’s unbelievable work ethic, and a “way of life” that other people in this world are not so fortunate to enjoy.

Very simply, we know Maine’s a special place, and we appreciate what we have.

We also know the challenges our state faces as movement away from manufacturing, and away from “resource based” jobs like forestry, continues. We know that many aspects of this generational change are permanent. But also permanent are the creativity, the ingenuity, the wisdom and the perseverance of our people. Maine people know that we have to plan for the future, rather than dawdle in the past.

Maine Broadband Coalition has formed, and it consists of Maine people ready to build a bright future. We are diverse, with individuals, businesses, public officials, non-profit organizations, and folks from all walks of life. We invite you, perceptive as you are, to join us for one very good reason. Forward thinkers know for sure that Maine should not rank 49th out of our 50 states in terms of Internet speed and quality. We can and will do much better.

An exciting future lies just ahead. In the last year alone, Maine has made great strides forward in analyzing and identifying problems and solutions. Today there are more than thirty bills in front of the Maine Legislature dealing with high-speed Internet and Maine’s economic future. Momentum is on our side. As the speakers in this video make clear, what we need most of all is LEADERSHIP. Luckily, Maine has always been loaded with great leaders. The Maine Broadband Coalition invites you to visit here often as we make the case for building a world-class Internet infrastructure, and a very bright economic future.

CLICK TO VIEW: In 2014, a former technology advisor to the President of the Unites States visited Rockport to talk about Maine’s leadership role in building world-class Internet service.