Necessity Births a Rural Broadband Network
Chanute, Kansas, two hours from Tulsa, Joplin, and Kansas City, is home to about 9,100 people. As has been true in much of the rural U.S., existing telephone and cable companies were slow to upgrade broadband service here. But local leaders decided broadband was too important to wait for and embarked on a path of self-reliance with smart investments in Internet infrastructure. Using partnerships and careful forethought, a network for Chanute has been built without having to bond or borrow funds.
Chanute’s network actually started in 1984 when the municipal electric utility installed four miles of fiber optic lines to connect a power plant and better manage electricity distribution. Soon, the city also connected the largest consumer of electricity in town, a cement manufacturer, to monitor its electrical demand in real time.
Over the next ten years, city and education leaders realized connectivity would be crucial to the success of the local economy. The school district, Neosho Community College (NCCC), and Chanute’s city leaders talked about the possibilities of an expanded network but were not able to secure funding for new connections in the ‘90s.
Then came 9/11, ultimately leading to tightened homeland security requirements for essential infrastructure. Chanute had to find a way to monitor its utility facilities and identified video surveillance via a broadband network as the best option.
A security analysis and feasibility study suggested that expanding the existing fiber network could be done incrementally with small grants. Thus community leaders turned the federal mandate into motivation and connected the schools along the way toward meeting the new requirements. They also learned that utility and community anchor-institutions would need to collaborate and be vigilant in identifying possible grant funding.
Chanute’s current fiber and wireless network serves government, schools, a community college, healthcare facilities, local businesses, and public safety. The network continues to create cost savings and spurs economic development, enhancing both educational opportunities and quality of life in Chanute. The story is fully chronicled in a case study just released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage.
Having its own electric utility simplified the planning and installation of Chanute’s growing fiber optic telecommunications network. The town’s experience reflects the situation in many rural communities that have established such networks: Physical installation is easier with crews that are used to working in the public rights of way; local government also enjoyed the trust of local businesses and residents, who had long-standing, positive relationships with the municipal utility, which was viewed far more favorably than were the absentee telephone and cable company.
City of Chanute
The first connections were to anchor institutions, including the public schools, Neosho County Community College (NCCC), and local government facilities. To help the schools and NCCC, the utility fronted the capital costs ($2 million) and was repaid via an installment plan. The school’s connections were subsidized with the federal E-Rate program, aided by the statewide education network, Kan-ed.
Chanute actually became an aggregation point for Kan-ed, a place where other members could interconnect with each other and with the state’s education network. A local wireless provider began operating as a “wireless bridge” between the Chanute network and nodes that connected to other members of the Kan-ed system, including other school districts and libraries. Through this method of “backhauling,” educational benefits of the network have extended far beyond the Chanute city limits.
Local businesses began to press the city to offer business connectivity because existing Internet providers were either too slow, too unreliable or too limited in the amounts of data their subscriptions permitted customers to send and receive without penalty. The first business customer, connected in 2005, pleaded with the city to use the fiber network after a disastrous five-day service outage from its wireless provider. Once up and running on the new network, the first customer’s IT director described their new service in one word: “Weeeeeeeeeeee!”
Thirteen commercial customers now use the publicly owned network. The fiber and wireless network has helped bring new employers to town and retained existing jobs. In the spring of 2012, Spirit AeroSystems, an international designer and manufacturer of airplane components, opened a new plant in Chanute. The move will eventually add 150 new jobs to the community. Spirit requires a high capacity network to communicate and share data with customers and other corporate locations around the world. Chanute’s network, which can provide 1 Gbps to subscribers without breaking a sweat, offers the high capacity and reliability critical for businesses.
Developing wireless capabilities to complement the fiber network multiplied the possibilities for Chanute. Obtaining several 2.5 MHz spectrum licenses allowed it to create a 4G WiMAX network. While the 25 Gbps system is primarily used for public safety purposes in and around Chanute, one commercial beta customer uses the network and raves about its capacity. Chanute is also using the WiMAX network for advanced metering of its various utility services. The city systematically phases out old meters replacing them with the new technology.
Chanute has free Wi-fi at every park in the city and in much of downtown, supplied by the wireless network. Police, fire, and municipal personnel use mobile access points all over the community to work in the field. A federal grant paid for a wireless connection to the county’s central dispatch and 911 call center 19 miles away.
In addition to the network’s use by the local workforce, public safety, and government, students at the public schools and NCCC have a telecommunication system other rural schools can only dream about. School facilities are all connected to each other with gigabit circuits for a very friendly $250 charge per site per month. These fast connections allow them to save money by centralizing server and network administration across the district.
The public schools additionally pay for a 12 Mbps Internet connection, with the ability to burst out and use whatever spare capacity exists. This is a somewhat unique approach: rather than paying for a theoretical maximum speed (the “up to” often advertised by big carriers), they pay for a minimum and regularly get faster transfers when the network has unused capacity. The local schools use video conferencing for teaching, take virtual field trips, and now have the bandwidth needed for online standardized testing.
NCCC’s president, Brian Inbody, estimates that even if the college could get a comparable service from the private sector, it would cost an additional $19,200 per year. NCCC also enjoys the 1 Gbps WAN, with a minimum 45 Mbps connection to the Internet. The community college has been able to expand its distance learning program and its student body, a tremendous benefit for improved access to education in this rural community.
While Chanute created a next-generation network with almost no financial risk, doing so incrementally did have a cost. Larry Gates, Director of Utilities, estimates the cost of the entire network to be $2 million. In Chanute, where the average income is lower than the state average, government leaders remain averse to taking on too much financial risk at once. Fortunately, the network does more than pay for itself; in addition to funding more incremental expansions and its operational costs, a percentage of its annual gross revenue goes into Chanute’s general fund. With the economic, educational, and cost-savings benefits, and additional potential uses for the network in the future, community leaders consider the funding a smart investment
Chanute’s positive attitude toward collaboration sealed its success. Member entities pooled resources in a retired municipal building and created a collocation facility. Ash Grove Cement allowed wireless equipment to be installed on its tower without charging the city. A second antenna was installed on a city-owned water tower.
Moving forward, Chanute has plans to connect everyone in town with the fiber network. The ultimate goal is an open access network over which ISPs will compete with each other for business and provide real choice. Though the city presently acts as an ISP for some businesses, the longer term plan is to limit its role to maintaining and expanding the physical infrastructure. City officials prefer not to continue offering services directly.
In our case study, Chanute’s Gig, we spoke with city, business, and educational leaders about their experiences with the fiber and wireless networks. Every interview included accolades for the new network. For more about how Chanute turned a vision into a reality without debt, download the report for free.
Christopher Mitchell and Lisa Gonzalez research and advocate for community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. They both write regularly at MuniNetworks.org