Backbone – refers to one of the primary/principle data routes between strategically interconnected networks and core routers on the internet. A few corporations own and operate this infrastructure that connects cities and countries and includes submarine fiber optic cables and fiber along the interstate. The backbone does not provide direct service to customers.
Backhaul – portion of the network that connects a local network or system to the backbone of the internet.
Broadband – term applied to any data connection that enables large quantities of data to be transmitted not specific to any type of connection; or, fast connection that allows the internet to load quickly. Historically measured as 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband/high-speed internet access as 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. Business users typically need a higher upload than 1mbps in order to send/share data with their clients, vendors, etc. Households are trending in the same direction as more people conduct some percentage of their work from home and students are submitting work through their schools’ online portals.
Conduit – the flexible pipe buried in the ground to protect cables, specifically fiber in the case of the Town’s project. The Town has installed two adjacent 1.25” conduits to provide room for future growth or to lease to another entity.
Dark Fiber Network – a system of fiber optic cables that are not actively being used by its owner to access the internet (see Lit Fiber Network). This network can be used to share data between two locations (ex. Town Hall and Public Works Complex) or the fibers can be leased to an ISP for resale.
Data Center – a group of networked computer servers typically used for the remote storage, processing and/or distribution of large amounts of data. From an organization’s perspective data centers are used to store data off site (the cloud) and to transition data from one network to another network (ISP 1 to ISP 2). From an economic development perspective data centers require few high-wage staff for monitoring and management, a low risk/threat site and strong redundant utilities.
Fiber Optic Cable (fiber) – cable composed of thin strands of glass or plastic known as optical fibers. Fiber has more capacity of speed/bandwidth than copper or coaxial cables or existing wireless service. The Town has installed 144-strands of fibers in Phase 1. Commercial clients typically lease pairs of fiber, but new technology allows multiple users to share a single fiber using different colors of light across the strand of glass. Existing commercial equipment handles up to 40 Gbps on a single fiber but the limits of fiber are unknown as faster speeds are currently being tested in lab settings. Access to fiber does not automatically equal access to the internet.
Internet Service Provider (ISP) – last mile provider that sells internet service directly to a residential, commercial or other organizational customer.
Last-/Middle-Mile Network – Last-mile network is the infrastructure between a customer’s premises and the middle-mile network. Middle-mile network or Distribution Network is the infrastructure between the last-mile network and the backhaul network or backbone depending on the network’s design.
Lit Fiber Network – a system of fiber optic cables used to connect an entity (ex. home, business, etc.) with the outside world (internet).
Zones – the Town’s broadband system will be divided into geographic zones to be leased to ISPs. Each zone will have a specific rate structure (monthly recurring fee) based on the number of potential residential and commercial customers. Providers will not be required to lease from multiple zones.
Why is Ashland Involved in Broadband?
The Town of Ashland is currently served by a telephone provider (DSL) and cable television provider (cable internet) for residential and commercial users. According to their website, the telephone company’s available DSL service in Town is up to 3 mpbs download and 1 mbps upload, and they require users to also pay for phone service. The cable provider offers a standalone internet package with up to 60 mbps download and 5 mbps upload. Higher speeds are available for additional cost with a TV package. A few large organizations that require more capacity have contracted with ISPs to install dedicated fiber lines that can provide higher broadband speeds than the local incumbents, but this requires a significant capital investment and a higher recurring fee.
Our residents and businesses view the incumbents as holding a monopoly over accessing the internet. Also, businesses that have sought a location in Ashland have been hindered due to either the lengthy timeline required to establish service with one of the incumbents or in a few cases the incumbent had no additional capacity to add additional commercial users.
Town Council decided that it needed to spur competition in the broadband market and expand broadband availability within Town by developing the infrastructure needed to grow the capacity for broadband. The goal is for the system to support the attraction of new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses in order to diversify the career pool in the Town’s local economy.
In 2018 the Town conducted a survey of the residential and business community regarding their existing internet service, usage and desires. Only 4% of businesses are “very satisfied” with their current internet service and 86% of business respondents want better internet access. Additionally, 17% of Ashland businesses are located in residential areas so our neighborhoods need business class service options.
A dark fiber network provides the Town with an asset to lease to ISPs so that the ISPs can provide the service to the customers within range of the network. The benefit to the Town is that the ISPs have the expertise and resources to market, sell and service customers. The benefit to the ISP is that the Town assumes the upfront capital cost of construction. Because the Town owns the network but does not provide service directly to customers we remain agnostic to the ISPs. Our network will also have capacity for multiple ISPs to sell service from the Town’s system.
What has Ashland Accomplished?
The Town Council began saving funds in FY2016 to conduct a feasibility study and potentially construct its own broadband network. In FY2018 the Town hired WideOpen Networks to develop a Broadband Master Plan, which included a survey of residents and businesses, to help guide the Town’s path forward in how it should address the lack of competition in the broadband market. The master plan recommended that the Town construct a dark fiber network throughout Town beginning with the commercial areas. In FY2019 Town Council created the Municipal Broadband Committee with the mission of “To advise Town Council and staff in the development of a municipal broadband network through public advocacy and education.” The Committee was charged with five objectives and is currently working on branding the system and advising on future phases.
As of FY2019 the Town has contracted with Lumos Networks for access to the backbone, a portion of which already runs along Interstate 95, to connect the Town’s system to the outside world. The Town has also completed Phase 1 of construction that includes approximately two miles of 144 strand fiber and two 1.25” conduit. One ISP has leased fibers on Phase 1, which will be referred to as Zone 1 moving forward. Future phases may be divided into multiple zones depending on the size and demographics of the construction phase.
What is Ashland’s Future?
Town Council has made it a top priority during their Capital Improvement Program review and they have committed to funding for future construction phases. The adopted Master Plan includes recommendations and cost estimates for future phases that will be studied by the Committee. The Committee will recommend construction phases to Town Council for approval when adequate funding is available based on market research and community input. Staff is also focused on growing its knowledge and skills so that it can support future growth.
The Town is interested in working with its local, state, federal and private sector partners to grow its system in order to serve more of the community. Current federal and state funding focuses on rural unserved areas so the Town desires to work with its partners find creative solutions to support competition in the market to best serve its residents and businesses. Absent a major change the Town will need to continue self-funding the deployment of its system.