No Middleman Required: Taking on the Municipal Broadband Challenge

ARTICLE | Jun 16, 2016

Satiating the growing needs of our technology-based society is an increasingly significant focus for local governments. One of the primary barriers to successfully reaching business and personal needs of everyone is accessibility to internet. But in the day of digital everything, simply offering any broadband solution isn’t good enough. And many local governments have recognized this, taking on the responsibility to provide high-speed, readily available internet to the community at-large. In this article, two Ohio communities share their experience in accepting the challenge and bringing this service through municipal-owned networks.

Hudson, Ohio, Takes High-Speed Internet into Their Own Hands

In the summer of 2015, Hudson, Ohio, introduced Velocity Broadband, a city-owned and operated fiber broadband Internet service. The service offers 1 Gigabit (Gb) of speed to customers, which is faster than any other broadband available in Northeast Ohio. As one of the first “Gigabit Cities” in Ohio, Hudson is blazing the trail for other communities. 

Responding to Business Needs

The idea to develop Velocity Broadband came from a need expressed by businesses throughout Hudson. The economic development department heard business complaints about slow and inconsistent Internet service, and in local surveys, businesses indicated that faster, more reliable Internet was key to growing their business.

The challenge at the beginning was how to fix the problem. City Council first considered running high-speed lines and asking a private broadband company to take them over, but a willing service provider could not be found. It begged the question: Leave things as they are and risk losing businesses or find a way to provide high-speed Internet on their own?

Ultimately, Hudson city leaders decided that establishing their own broadband Internet service was the best way to retain businesses and attract new companies to the city. Hudson already has its own power company, so fiber lines were installed quickly, and the service has started rolling out to Hudson businesses. In September 2015, city offices and private businesses in the Executive Parkway business park were connected to Velocity Broadband and the response has been great. For one new Velocity Broadband customer, the switch to the city’s Internet service meant a large graphic file that previously took one hour to upload, now takes just over two minutes.

Hudson is using a design-build approach as Velocity Broadband continues to roll out. Sections of the network are designed and built as the project progresses, allowing for flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Since the first phase of the rollout plan, Velocity Broadband has continued to expand. By this summer, the First & Main shopping area and downtown Hudson will be connected and State Route 91 will be connected by the end of the year. The City is currently developing a business plan to expand the service to residential customers in the coming years.

Advice to Other Cities

The City of Hudson’s advice to other cities considering going down this path is to put your businesses first. It wasn’t Hudson’s first choice to own and operate their own broadband Internet service, but they knew the payoff would be great. Hudson businesses are experiencing improved connectivity and greater productivity. Already, Hudson is receiving calls from companies outside the city looking to relocate to Hudson because they heard of the new high-speed fiber service. Fast and reliable Internet service is important to all businesses today’s high-tech world, and by offering this service, the city is able to retain current businesses and attract new ones.

Partnership First and Fiber Fast: How Montgomery, OH Continues to Build on Their Fiber Foundation

Describe how the idea helps improve services?

The City of Montgomery had a need to install a fiber-optic connection to its public works facility to increase bandwidth and improve operational capabilities. Because of the distance, this typically would have been accomplished by leasing a connection from one of the local telecommunication service providers. The cost to lease a connection of sufficient bandwidth to address current needs and future growth was always cost prohibitive for such a small organization.  Montgomery has a long-standing positive relationship with Sycamore Community Schools and conducted several meetings to determine if they could help solve the problem given their extensive fiber-optic network and in a way that would be of benefit to both organizations. Because of this partnership, Montgomery is now part of the Sycamore network and has connected all City facilities via high-speed fiber optic cables, extending the reach and boosting the capabilities of both organizations. One of the most recent improvements resulting from the partnership, is the installation of a shared telephone system.

In addition to improving services, Montgomery has been able to reduce costs. Instead of leasing a connection from a telecommunications provider, Montgomery installed its own fiber optic cabling from City facilities to Sycamore facilities for a one-time cost and reimburses Sycamore annually for network engineering support and professional assistance for other technology projects. This has resulted in a savings of approximately $9,500 per year for Montgomery, and Sycamore benefits by having the resources to hire a full-time network engineer, a win-win.  The City gained additional annual savings through the installation of the shared telephone system. In total, Montgomery saves $15,500 per year and has provided Sycamore the resources they need to improves services to their students, teachers, and staff.

How did the idea develop? What are the goals?  How have they changed? Anything been implemented?

Sycamore Community Schools serves the City of Montgomery, City of Blue Ash and portions of two townships.  Montgomery and Sycamore have a long-standing professional working relationship and meet regularly to discuss local and regional issues that affect both organizations.  Late in 2012, the technology directors from both organizations met to discuss the challenges they faced and potential opportunities for cost savings and service enhancements. It was during this initial meeting, that the seeds were sown for a much larger vision of service collaboration for information technology services.  The goal was to create a partnership that could solve the technology challenges of both organizations while enhancing service and reducing cost. This is still our goal today.

The continued partnership has set the foundation for many future possibilities. For example, the upcoming installation of fiber optic traffic signal controls by Montgomery will expand the network reach even further facilitating the possibility of expanded public Wi-Fi, something not economically feasible for either organization to accomplish on their own before the partnership.  This would benefit both organizations as it would aid economic development for the City, and help Sycamore expand their initiative of offering Wi-Fi access to students in underserved areas to allow after-school access to school resources. Another potential service improvement, is network redundancy allowing for failover Internet connections, load balancing, and server colocation.

Any challenges with the idea? How did you overcome them?

The most significant obstacle was recognizing that if each organization continued to operate in a silo, they would not be able to provide the most efficient and high quality service to their stakeholders.  This was quickly overcome because of the existing relationship and through the support of the executive leadership in each organization. In addition, consideration had to be given to ensure E-Rate rules were not broken, potentially jeopardizing technology funding for Sycamore, which did not impact Montgomery.  E-Rate is the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Any advice for other communities interested in building their own version of the idea?

What made this partnership successful was the openness of both organizations to work together to do what’s right for the community. When two organizations approach a problem at a higher level, smaller challenges or roadblocks become more manageable. Also, creating partnerships similar to that of the City of Montgomery and Sycamore Community Schools, creating a vision of future possibilities, not just solving the current problem, builds excitement and energy to continue in a positive direction and on a personal level, makes working together enjoyable.

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