Local development districts can look to peers across the country for examples of effective rural broadband delivery. These efforts are sometimes led by local development districts, but oftentimes rely on local cooperatives, internet service providers, and other key stakeholders. See below a series of examples of rural broadband delivery.
Buckeye Hills Regional Council, a council of governments located in southeastern Ohio, has been working to move its broadband initiative forward for more than two years. In 2019, Buckeye Hills and their partners conducted an eight-county feasibility study to investigate the true state of broadband connectivity in their region and inform their deployment strategies going forward. Their experience evaluating the state of their region’s broadband connectivity and their findings can help inform other LLDs on common challenges faced when conducting such a study and increase awareness about the obstacles they may face.
- Cost and unpredictability make ‘make ready’ costs associated with broadband deployment a major obstacle.
- Conducting a community asset inventory is a vital piece of a broadband feasibility study, but not all desired information will be readily available.
- Digital inclusion programming is important to promote equitable access, but may be counterproductive if approached too early.
When projecting potential costs of a fiber optic deployment, the Buckeye Hills team found that ‘make-ready’ costs associated with installing fiber either underground or on telephone poles is one of the single biggest barriers to deployment due to its costliness and unpredictability. Much of Appalachia’s soil is rocky, making it costly to bury fiber, while utility pole owners may mandate that internet service providers (ISPs) make costly improvements to the poles, or replace them entirely.
An integral part of performing a feasibility study is conducting an asset inventory: collecting information on where broadband is and is not available in the community and identifying pre-existing assets that may be leveraged to facilitate future broadband deployment. In Buckeye Hills experience, information on vertical assets and government properties is often readily available. However, due to its proprietary nature, locating pre-existing privately-owned fiber optic cable is often not possible and, in many cases, must be done without.
To evaluate the future demand of broadband of broadband services, Buckeye Hills has found that likely market penetration can be accurately extrapolated by combining address and business data for the area in question with data from previous deployments done in similar areas. Buckeye Hills notes that while community engagement is key, too much digital inclusion programming in areas where broadband is not already available may cause frustration among the community and be counterproductive.
Explore Opportunities to Make ‘Make Ready’ More Predictable: To attract ISP partners, Tom Reid, a consultant on the project, has suggested that an agreement could be brokered between utility pole owners and an internet service provider to ensure a make ready ‘cap’ is set for fiber deployment. This cap would lower the ISP’s deployment costs and make them more predictable while the ISP would agree to offer access to all households in the area.
Digital Inclusion Programming When the Time is Right: While community engagement and digital inclusion programming are often cited as important ways to gain project support and potential increase market penetration, they must be approached delicately in areas lacking internet service. Digital inclusion programming is most effective in communities where broadband access is already available.
Be an Active Advocate: Some barriers to local broadband deployment have their roots at the state or even federal level. Local communities should collaborate to use their united voices to advocate for community broadband-friendly policies and programs such as direct consumer subsidies and state regulations that facilitate deployment, not hinder it.
North Dakota’s superb rural broadband connectivity illustrates how small, community-minded businesses and cooperatives can collaborate to become agents that deliver the highest quality connectivity to rural consumers. Over 75% of the state’s rural residents have access to fiber optic broadband offered by one of 14 independent telephone companies and cooperatives. According to an analysis of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, North Dakota’s rural residents are more likely to have access to gigabit fiber broadband than their urban counterparts. North Dakota’s success is due in no small part to all 14 companies’ joint investment in the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), a ‘middle mile’ network that connects each of the 14 independent ‘last mile’ networks together and facilitates last mile expansion.
- North Dakota is renowned for its high-speed and widely available fiber broadband, available in over 98% of the state.
- The majority of the state’s rural areas are served by locally-owned and operated internet service providers, most of them cooperatives.
- Dakota Carrier Network is a middle mile network that is owned equally amongst the 14 local internet service providers.
The story of North Dakota’s rural broadband success hinges on community, cooperation, and trust. In 1996, telephone company U.S. West (now Qwest) expressed an interest in selling their telephone exchanges and leaving the rural North Dakota market due to lack of profitability. The local telephone companies in the state became interested in purchasing these exchanges to expand their own service areas and ultimately organized amongst themselves to bid jointly on all of U.S. West’s exchanges.
Looking for additional opportunities to expand their businesses, the cooperatives and companies jointly created the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), a statewide, middle-mile fiber optic network that connects each of the 14 independent providers’ networks together. To ensure return on their infrastructure investment, the owner companies knew that DCN would need an anchor tenant. In 1999 DCN won the state contract to provide all government buildings and schools across the state. A notable feature of DCN is all 14 owner companies have equity parity and equal voting rights at board meetings, no matter their level of investment in the network. Those at DCN stress that this arrangement fosters the trust and transparency necessary for such a large-scale collaboration between companies to be successful.
While DCN serves North Dakota government establishments, schools, and large businesses directly, each independent provider offers broadband access to households and small businesses within their service areas. Collectively, the owner companies have invested over $100 million a year for the last five years, and 90% of last mile connections are fiber-to-the-home. This type of infrastructure investment reveals a key to North Dakota’s success: The independent providers are local entities that have a shared goal to increase connectivity in their local communities.
An Internet Service Provider Partner Should Share A Community’s Values: A key to rural North Dakota’s broadband success is that each independent provider is locally owned, operated, and in many cases directly owned by its customers. Because each company is inextricably tied to the community, the connectivity goals of the provider and the community are often aligned.
Trust is Key: Large-scale broadband initiatives with many partners may open doors to new connectivity opportunities by pooling resources, but trust between partners is a key component of success.
Be Ready When the Moment Strikes: DCN guaranteed its financial wellbeing because its partners were prepared to bid on the state’s Request For Proposals to provide internet service to the state government. Planning to be ready to take advantage of a propitious moment or event will allow communities to capitalize on opportunities when they present themselves.
 Kienbaum, Katie, et al, Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota, Institute for Local-Self Reliance, May 2020, Pg 6-7, https://cdn.ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020-05-North-Dakota-Internet-Access-Case-Study.pdf
Central Minnesota’s RS Fiber Cooperative provides a vivid case study of how centralized project leadership can leverage relationships with stakeholders to bring together a complex array of partners to provide thousands of rural residents with affordable, reliable internet service. RS Fiber Cooperative is a community-driven/cooperative-owned fiber network that provides up-to-a-gigabit internet to 10 small cities and 17 rural townships in central Minnesota. RS Fiber has garnered national attention because the cooperative was founded specifically to provide affordable broadband service, in contrast to the majority of such entities which have grown out of pre-existing telephone or electric cooperatives.
- Ten cities and 17 townships in Central Minnesota formed a new broadband cooperative to provide urban and rural residents with high-speed internet of up to 50/mbps.
- Project leader Mark Erickson served as a central point of contact for the project, helping achieve buy-in from reluctant city councils and facilitating the project’s relationship with its private sector network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications.
- The 27 government stakeholders formed an entity to streamline the project’s decision-making process, known as the Joint Powers Board.
- Financing obstacles required the local governments involved to raise taxes, but ultimately resulted in the availability of high quality broadband at a lower cost to community members.
RS Fiber’s story begins in 2008, when the city council of Winthrop, fed up with the city’s inadequate internet service, directed city administrator Mark Erickson to explore the possibility of constructing a fiber network for the city of approximately 1,400. Incumbent broadband providers determined that the city’s low population density made fiber construction financially infeasible and refused to partner. Without a partner and aware that a city of Winthrop’s size could not support its own municipally-owned network, Erickson assembled a group of ten cities and 17 townships to join forces and tackle inadequate broadband connectivity at a regional level.
In order to facilitate decision-making among so many project stakeholders, the participating governments created the Joint Powers Board (JPB), an entity that would act on behalf of the city and townships governments to manage, oversee, and finance the project. After exploring multiple financing strategies, JPB and RS Fiber decided on an innovative financing mechanism: JPB would issue general obligation bonds and loan them directly to RS Fiber, making those loans subordinate to all additional financing that RS Fiber would receive from other sources. JPB’s financing would serve as a down payment on the project’s cost while also decreasing the risk for subsequent lenders.
Today, RS Fiber offers fiber-to-the-home broadband service of up to gigabit speeds in all ten cities and fixed wireless connectivity of up to 50mbps to the rural townships. It currently offers internet access to over 6,200 potential consumers. The cooperative’s success in providing broadband to its members proves that, with the right leadership and expertise, a diverse group of communities can band together and overcome obstacles to broadband connectivity.
- Successful Project Leaders Serve as the Central Point of Contact for Their Community’s Broadband Initiative: Project leaders must be able to speak knowledgeably about the technical and financial aspects of a project, but above all they must maintain relationships between the project’s various stakeholders.
- The Low-density Problem Can be Tackled by Community Expansion: The idea of RS Fiber was hatched when City of Winthrop administrators realized that it was not feasible to install their own fiber network due to a lack of potential subscribers. By pooling resources among neighboring cities and combining their potential subscriber bases, the involved governments were able to embark on a project that would not have been financially feasible for any of them acting independently.
- A Partner with Telecommunications Expertise is Crucial: Those that were a part of RS Fiber have expressed that the technical expertise provided by Hiawatha Broadband Communications to build and operate the network infrastructure was a vital component of the project’s success.
The Oglethorpe Development Authority transformed broadband development from an undefined problem into a county priority by taking the initiative to measure broadband demand, identify key assets, and demonstrate a willingness to invest in broadband that attracted attention from major ISPs. The Oglethorpe Development Authority is county economic development organization that recently deployed a fixed wireless network serving rural parts of the county and was the first county to be designated as a Georgia Broadband Ready Community. After failing to connect with ISPs, these efforts catalyzed interest by the incumbent provider to invest in the community. The Oglethorpe Development Authority leveraged scarce resources to demonstrate the business case for expanding access in the county’s unserved areas, demonstrated feasibility through deploying broadband themselves, and ultimately developed partnership with ISPS that were initially unwilling to come to the table.
- The Oglethorpe Development Authority transformed broadband development from an undefined issue into a solvable problem by identifying a measurable goal, forming a strategic action plan, and identifying the state of the problem and potential solutions.
- The Development Authority tried to use outreach to ISPs, market research, and broadband asset mapping to demonstrate the business case for ISPs to invest in Oglethorpe to no avail.
- Ultimately, Oglethorpe had to deploy broadband infrastructure itself, and demonstrate that doing so was feasible, to attract interest from ISPs to develop broadband infrastructure.
Broadband access was a major talking point for local business and community leaders. However, the County didn’t have any sense as to whether the people discontent with broadband were a vocal minority, or representative of a more widespread issue across Oglethorpe.
In February 2018, the Oglethorpe Development Authority formed a Broadband Committee to identify the state of, and begin to address, the lack of investment by private ISPs in the county. The Committee adopted the goal that 90% of Oglethorpe County would have access to broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps, which became a rallying point for Oglethorpe County’s broadband development efforts. The Committee decided to be a “squeaky wheel,” hoping to encourage private ISPs operating in Oglethorpe County to address unserved parts of the county by raising the issue to business-leaders and legislators.
Despite their best efforts, ISPs rebuked the Committee-members, with their key concern being the profitability of any investment into the most-rural portions of Oglethorpe County. The Committee realized they needed more data on unserved areas, broadband assets, and data on the market for broadband services. The Development Authority administered a broadband quality and affordability survey to Oglethorpe residents online, and via newspaper, outreach at carpool lines, and leaving copies at every community center. The survey found residents were willing to pay $50-$75 or more for reliable 25/3 broadband service. Again, this failed to bring incumbent ISPs to the table.
The Development Authority developed an RFQ that solicited providers to deploy a fixed wireless network that serves 1,000 homes, 1/6 of Oglethorpe, for $350,000. The RFQ only received one response, from a start-up, to deploy broadband. The Development Authority formed a public-private partnership with the provider to provide broadband service and maintain the network for fifteen years, upon which the provider could purchase the network. While current roll out of the service has been slow, primarily due to the challenges facing a new company, review of the service has been favorable.
The VP of Windstream contacted the Oglethorpe Development Authority less than a week after it awarded its broadband RFQ to identify opportunities to partner with the county to invest in broadband infrastructure, resulting in several federally-funded broadband development projects. The Oglethorpe Development Authority team had proven it understood the business model for ISPs, and that they were easy to work with and a reliable, supporting partner in broadband development.
In 2019, the County attracted publicity by being designated the first Georgia Broadband Ready Community through streamlining regulations. In combination with this Designation, Oglethorpe hopes its investments in infrastructure will encourage private ISPs to further invest in Oglethorpe County.
Project leaders need to identify the various regulations that impact a chosen connectivity option. The Oglethorpe Development Authority deployed a fixed wireless network, and had to receive rights from a neighboring county to use a portion of the spectrum to transmit broadband. Additionally, the County plans to review its Telecommunications Tower Ordinance, which applies burdensome regulations to tower-construction projects, regardless of the height of the tower. The right-of-way regulations specified in the Georgia Broadband Ready Community guidelines were easy to adapt for Oglethorpe, but are more complex issues for larger municipalities, such as Athens.
Partnering with ISPs requires time and effort. Broadband development requires cooperation from incumbent and robust providers to expand broadband infrastructure. The incumbent ISP was undergoing bankruptcy and faced a change in leadership. After sorting its internal issues and proving itself a great parner, the Development Authority hears from Windstream every week about developments or opportunities to apply for federal broadband funds. The leadership-change at Windstream opened up company-executives to partnering with Oglethorpe in broadband-development, and Oglethorpe’s “squeaky wheel” made enough noise to attract their attention.
Politics impacts Policy. After rolling out its pilot fixed wireless network, Oglethorpe had major changes in County leadership that are less interested in broadband development. This represents a potential unknown for any future county-led broadband development engagements. As such, the Development Authority has leveraged this opportunity to identify funding sources not under the control of the County Chair that open up new possibilities for broadband investment.