Necessity Births a Rural Broadband Network

[imgbelt img=chanutenetexisting-nad-planned301.jpg]Chanute, Kansas, built its own Internet infrastructure gradually without
bonding or borrowing, thanks to a nudge from Homeland Security
and local cooperation.



Spirit AeroSystems

Kansas governor Sam Brownback (left) spoke with a worker at Spirit AeroSystems about an airplane part built at the new plant in April. The company came to Chanute in part thanks to the city’s high-speed
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.

Spirit AeroSystems

Chanute’s city manager and development director celebrated the opening of Spirit Chanute with company employees in March 2012. The plant will eventually bring 150 new jobs to the city.

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.

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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