One Idaho town said ‘yes’

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

More than 2,300 years before the common era, the people of the Indus Valley Civilization (now modern-day eastern portion of Pakistan) constructed the first public water, sewer, and road systems.

Later civilizations perfected techniques, but the residents and leaders of that area had to answer a fundamental question: what is essential to modern civilization?

“None of us were here when the sewer system was put in, when electric lines were installed. At some point, someone had to decide that it was essential infrastructure,” said Jeff Christensen, president of EntryPoint Networks and a consultant to the city of Ammon, Idaho, where a grassroots effort has paved the way for the city taking on internet connectivity as an infrastructure project.

Christensen visited Keizer two weeks ago to sit down with a handful of residents interested in the possibility of bringing greater internet access to this area. He said cities throughout the world are now at another inflection point when it comes to internet access.

“If it’s essential, then by definition it should be a utility,” Christensen said.

Cities that have opted to take on internet connectivity as a public utility most frequently do so because private internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast and CenturyLink, have chosen to slow-walk rollout of high-speed networks in rural areas. They choose to install fiber optic networks across their jurisdictions because it supplies the fastest, reliable connection available. Thus far, there is no known limit on the speed a fiber connection can provide. Limits are set by the companies that control the network itself and doled out to customers based on what they are able or willing to pay.

A more ideal arrangement, according to Christensen, is putting cities in control of the network and allowing ISPs to market the services on it. Doing so in Ammon led to a dramatic drop in the fees residents paid for connectivity. Because of increased competition made possible when control of the network was out of ISPs’ hands, the cost for what ISPs in Ammon provide dropped from a rate of $44.95 per month to $9.95 per month in less than a year.

But, faster, cheaper internet service is actually one of the side benefits, Christensen contends.

“It’s a smart city problem,” Christensen said. “Customers get robust service at utility pricing, but the cities get things like smart lighting and smart parking on a smart grid. Comcast can do that, but they are going to charge you.”

Smarter, potentially safer

While the fiber network rollout is still happening in Ammon, community leaders are already exploring its potential future applications.

Because the network is connecting schools and first responders in addition to residents, the city tested the system for a potential active shooter event in a local school.

Gunshot-sensing microphones were attached to security cameras already installed in a school. When a test shot was fired in a hallway, an alert was sent to the video management system. The alert, complete with video footage pinpointing where in the school the shooter was positioned, was forwarded to the 9-1-1 dispatching system and could then be sent to tablets of first responders arriving on the scene.

In the test, the alert and video stills made its way to dispatchers in five seconds and to a police officer’s handheld device in less than 30 seconds.

“First responders can then follow wherever the shooter goes and knows exactly what they are dealing with,” Christensen said. “It’s the business model that makes it possible. That type of connection would come at a huge price when someone else owns the infrastructure.”

The current mentality is for each entity to build its own network, but the seemingly endless capacity of fiber allows all the networks to run through the same infrastructure. He likened it to roads. If roads currently worked the same way as computer networks, FedEx and UPS would each have their own freeways.

“Building separate networks for each thing doesn’t work fiscally. If we put a robust network in place and then work those systems off the infrastructure it’s better for everyone.”

Conversion to a publicly-controlled network infrastructure as a public utility is also a bulwark against changing federal regulations. Internet connectivity entered a new era of uncertainty with the repeal of net neutrality rules under the new Republican leadership of the Federal Communications Commission. The repeal gives ISPs the opportunity to throttle speeds on the networks they own. Sticking with the FedEx/UPS example, the law now allows the shipping companies to dictate the speeds at which their competitors are allowed to travel – and charge a premium to customers wanting services from those competitors.

Paying for it

The biggest hurdle to any massive infrastructure project is cost, but Ammon found a novel way to get its fiber network off the ground.

Instead of putting out a major effort for a municipal bond, Ammon formed an opt-in local improvement district (LID). It allowed any resident wanting to see the fiber network come to life to begin funding its creation at a cost of about $45 a month attached to their property taxes. To get started, the city needed about 35 percent of residents to opt-in.

“Ammon had 67 percent opt-in out of the gate and it climbed to 74 percent,” Christensen said.

The closest comparable fiscal tool in Oregon would be a public utility cooperative, like Salem Electric. Oregon laws make it difficult to finance projects through anything other than traditional bonding, which require a vote of all the residents in a jurisdiction, but a spokesperson for the bonding company that dealt with the Ammon LID said they are already in talks with bond counsel located in Oregon to explore alternatives.

Eventually, Ammon’s fiber infrastructure will have the potential to connect to every home in the city, but latecomers still need to pay their fair share of improvement district assessments before getting hooked up. It amounts to about $3,000 per household.

“We built in a few of the areas with the highest demand first, but then the city made a conscious decision to begin connecting the neighborhoods where the Digital Divide was most prevalent after that,” Christensen said. The Digital Divide refers to the gap in learning between those who have internet connectivity and those that don’t.

For those that still struggle to cover the monthly costs, a lifeline service fills the gap by allowing 45 minutes of continuous connection to the network before kicking the user off. After 15 minutes of downtime, the user can then log back in for another 45 minutes.

While the city has to fund maintenance and repair of the network it now owns, it is also finding solutions to keep extra costs a minimum.

“If three neighbors are all out at the same time, then they will service on the weekend. If it’s only one home, they will go out the next business day,” Christensen said.

While there will likely still be bugs to work out in the system is completely lit up, Christensen said the biggest hurdle to more cities owning fiber networks lies mostly in mindsets – that of corporations looking for profits and city leaders fearful of intruding in the private sector.

“A company’s motivation is profit and all decisions flow out of that. They don’t care about the collateral benefits to schools, medicine, education and public safety,” Christensen said. “The internet is too fundamental to look at just through the lens of profit.”

Keizertimes Managing Editor Eric Howald will be interviewing some of the local advocates for public utility internet live on KMUZ Community Radio, beginning about 8:10 on Friday, July 13. Tune in to hear the discussion.