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The Last Mile

Opening up Lane County’s internet access

 

Dark fiber is fiber optic cable that hasn't been connected (lit).

 

In the 1950s and ’60s the new faster freeways of the Interstate Highway System could make or break the businesses of the towns they went through or bypassed. Oregon towns with freeway exits off I-5 often expanded, thanks to the advantages of being close to shipping and travel, while businesses in towns far from the new roads withered. Once upon a time, the same was true for towns along railroad tracks. 

Former Lane County commissioner Cindy Wood-Weeldreyer says she knew that history of connectivity when she first became aware of what many in the ’90s liked to call the “information superhighway,” and she kept it in mind when she began working to bring fiber-optic cable to the area. “You follow the blueprint of history when you see opportunities coming down the road,” Weeldreyer says.

In the 21st century high-speed internet access is becoming as essential to business, government, health, education and everyday life as telephones and highways were in the previous century. Lane County started off a little ahead of the game when it came to broadband, thanks to early work bringing broadband fiber to the area, and has continued to install fiber throughout the region. But if businesses such as those in Eugene’s growing tech community, known as the Silicon Shire, want to expand, and if new businesses in rural areas want to grow, then more of our unused “dark fiber” needs to be lit up. We need to find ways to get more people faster access to the internet. 

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) debates “net neutrality” — the belief that governments and internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all internet data equally and not create fast lanes only for those who can afford it — Lane County is still working to get broadband internet access to all its residents who need it. 

 

Fiber Frontier

If you heard Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart touting his work with the Regional Fiber Consortium during the May Primary election, you might have thought he was helping sheep farmers network their wool. In a sense, the consortium might actually do just that, but fiber in this case refers to the fiber-optic cable network that Stewart and others have worked to install and extend in order to improve broadband internet access in Lane, Coos, Douglas and Klamath counties. 

Fiber-optic technology converts electrical signals carrying data to light and sends the light through transparent glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair, according to broadband.gov. Milo Mecham of the Lane County Council of Governments, who has been working on the broadband issue since the late ’90s, says the fiber is flexible and easily expandable to allow more users to connect to it.

While Stewart points to how far the area has come in terms of getting internet access to people and institutions, Kevin Matthews still sees the glass as half empty. Matthews was one of Stewart’s challengers in the election for the rural East Lane seat, which Stewart won in the end. Matthews, who says he has a pretty strong background in social media, found himself using what he calls more “classical” means for campaigning in rural areas such as Oakridge because of a lack of connectivity. Some users in that area are still dialing up the internet via phone lines, he says, and are a little bitter about it since a high-speed fiber-optic line happens to run right through the small rural town.

Matthews says, “My impression is that some progress has been made in getting basic fiber-optic trunk lines out some of the corridors, but very little progress has been made getting connections from those trunks to regular people in their houses.” That connection is what is called “the last mile” — the way your house connects to your internet service provider, through a phone line, coaxial cable, fiber-optic line or other option. 

The last mile is where that little spinning icon telling you your webpage is still loading comes in, because even if a blazing fast fiber-optic line runs past your house, the speed of your internet access is also affected by how you connect, or don’t connect, to that line. 

In the 2013 White House report “Four Years of Broadband Growth,” the Obama administration says that since 2002, internet access has contributed an average of $34 billion a year to the economy. Akamai, which produces a quarterly “state of the internet” report, says in a 2013 study that the average U.S. internet connection is about 40 percent slower than the world’s fastest, South Korea, and leaves us behind Latvia and the Czech Republic. We also pay more money for slower speeds. 

 

Regional Fiber

Weeldreyer says when she was first elected commissioner representing East Lane County in 1995 she focused on health and human services issues and on improving communication between the County Commission and its rural residents. One issue Weeldreyer was dealing with was that while people in the metro area could attend commission meetings or watch them on community television, the broadcasts were not available to rural residents. With this in mind, she went to a telecommunications conference in 1997 thinking she would learn more about expanding community TV. What she got was a crash course in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the need to expand internet services.

“All I knew was my rural community, which had a natural resources-based economy that never recovered from the ’80s, to compete in global marketplace would need that infrastructure,” she says. 

Weeldreyer became a “rural telecommunications evangelist.” Two regional consortiums were formed: Regional Fiber Consortium and Fiber South Consortium, which later merged into one consortium under the name of the Regional Fiber Consortium in 2007.

Weeldreyer spearheaded an effort to bring fiber optic to Eugene and surrounding towns in the late ’90s when she discovered that a private telecommunications company was laying fiber-optic cable from Seattle to San Diego. “It’s the I-5 of the future and they are just going to punch it through,” she thought. 

At that time Eugene was developing what some called a “Silicon Forest,” with high-tech companies like Hyundai (Hynix) and Sony moving in, but Weeldreyer feared the high-tech movement would only benefit towns along the I-5 corridor, not the small timber communities she represented. 

The fiber itself is the least expensive component in the effort, she says, so the question was what kind of proposal could local communities make that would induce the private company to lay dark fiber for them. Dark fiber is simply fiber-optic cable that has not been lit up — connected to the internet. 

Communities from Coburg to Oakridge quickly adopted ordinances to join the fiber consortiums and prepared to trade right-of-way access for fiber. But Weeldreyer says when the time came to negotiate — they were thinking of asking for maybe six strands of fiber — the telecommunications company responded “in true corporate fashion, ‘We don’t need your right-of-way.’” The fiber route would follow the railroad’s right-of-way, which is why there is a major fiber-optic route running through Oakridge and down to Klamath Falls.

Luckily, Weeldreyer says, Pam Berrian, telecommunications program manager for the city of Eugene, found that the city still controlled the right-of-way where the railroad crosses High Street, since the street existed before the railroad. 

Cities can charge fees for telecommunications companies to use their rights-of-way, and while Weeldreyer says most towns are reluctant to give up those moneymaking fees, this time they offered to expedite the permit and let the company have the right-of-way in exchange for 12 strands of fiber and access points to members of the consortiums along the way. 

The company, then called Pacific Fiber Link, faced with a roadblock to its fiber optic network, agreed and, Weeldreyer says, “For that magic moment in time I witnessed government moving at the speed of the private sector to benefit citizens along the route.”

 

Fast-Forward 

Also back in 1999, EWEB (Eugene Water and Electric Board) was working to install a fiber-optic network as well. The utility laid 70 miles of “backbone” cable, interconnecting 25 EWEB metro-area substations and three BPA bulk power stations. It was designed to have future connections with schools like the University of Oregon, local governments and long-haul telecommunications providers. 

The EWEB board had a “telecommunications vision” that it would develop a locally owned and managed high-speed broadband network throughout Eugene that would eventually connect all businesses and households through fiber optics or coaxial cable. 

According to a 2013 memo on EWEB dark-fiber leases, “with the decline/collapse of the telecommunications boom in late 2001/early 2002” the board abandoned its plan for this network and a MetroNet and instead starting leasing its fiber capacity to public and commercial entities. 

A recent thread on the Eugene page of popular networking site Reddit bemoans the loss of this system, and one user points out that Chattanooga, Tennessee spent $97 million building a fiber-optic network providing residents of the city and surrounding rural areas with high-speed low-cost internet — gigabit connections for $69.99 — and it has already paid for itself.

EWEB, however, has not stopped working on fiber optics, according to spokesman Joe Harwood. In 2010, EWEB’s $1.6 million share of a grant LCOG received from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) allowed the utility to extend fiber-optic cable to some schools and medical facilities.

The BTOP grant was a $8.3 million broadband infrastructure grant to enhance the existing fiber-optic backbone and add 124 miles of fiber-optic network to deliver broadband capabilities in Lane, Douglas and Klamath counties. The money came from the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and the goal was to bring 100 megabits per second connections to more than 100 “anchor institutions” such as medical centers, public safety entities, schools, community colleges and libraries.

The project, which wrapped up in the fall of 2013, “installed fiber in every city in Lane County with the exception of Westfir and Dunes City,” Mecham of LCOG says. Those last two were left out because “at the initial time of the grant there were no anchor institutions that would qualify.” He says, “It still burns me we didn’t get Westfir and Dunes City.”

Mecham says the agency is also working with city of Eugene and EWEB on “what we are calling a pilot project to run fiber optics to a couple buildings downtown, running fiber through the existing electrical system from the Willamette Internet Exchange to the Broadway Commerce Building and Woolworth Building.” Those buildings were chosen, Mecham says, because of a high concentration of software developers and other companies that need fiber. 

The downtown Willamette Internet Exchange, aka WIX, is an internet “peering point,” Mecham says. Rather than a data center that stores information, LCOG’s WIX is where local private and public networks interact. The internet isn’t really a “series of tubes,” Mecham says (though the metaphor of a small pipe versus a large pipe is useful in explaining how broadband speeds work), but rather a series of fibers that can send an email message in a microsecond. Instead of sending that information through the networks to Seattle or Chicago before it gets to a business across the street, a peering point lets local networks interact close by. This infinitesimal increase in speed may not affect an email, but it does affect someone downloading a large file like a two-hour movie, he says. 

Fiber in the Shire

The big companies like Sony that made up the Silicon Forest are no longer in Lane County, but the Silicon Shire, made up of smaller, up-and-coming tech businesses, has taken its place, and it needs faster broadband. 

Kiki Prottsman, founder of Thinkersmith, which teaches entry-level computer science, and an ambassador for Eugene’s Silicon Shire, says lack of access could stifle growth. Tech companies are up against an airport that lacks enough direct flights to places like Seattle and San Francisco and a network that can’t sustain the transferring of large files or multi-line video calls that can take the place of in-person meetings. “In some businesses, a split second makes the difference,” she says.

Prottsman says the need to expand broadband access to tech companies and rural dwellers alike is up against some tough barriers. Not only do finances constrict local governments, but she says “cable- and phone-internet people are worthy adversaries and want to make sure they have all the cards to play.” 

Weeldreyer would agree. She suspects she was a victim of corporate espionage at a National Association of Counties conference in 1999 when she went to give a presentation on how other rural counties could use the fiber-brokering right-of-way strategy to get fiber broadband in their areas, and her handouts disappeared from her hotel room and her computer presentation vanished from her computer.

Prottsman says access to the internet is determined by where you live and how much you can pay. “It’s just crazy and limiting, and those citizens don’t have the same opportunities,” she says of rural dwellers. 

Bringing broadband access to the rural areas is “the equivalent in our times of what rural electrification was in the last century,” Kevin Matthews says.

It’s a question of money, Mecham points out. The system the BTOP grant put into place means that once the finances are available, somewhere like Oakridge can add users. He gives the example of Veneta, where in order to bring a call center to town, the city got the funding to run a connection from the fiber cable the LCOG grant installed to the building for the call center. He’s hoping the Eugene pilot project will give an idea of how much it will cost to install and light up more fiber in Eugene and look into whether building owners are willing to “chip in for the next round of fiber” or if public funding, such as urban renewal money, could be used.

The internet is not the whole answer to balancing rural and county budgets, Matthews says, but “it is absolutely one of the keys to making that possible.” 

How much do people care about making open access to the internet possible? The FCC’s first public comment period on net neutrality ended July 15 with 677,000 comments on its proposed rules for an “open internet” that critics says will allow content companies to cut deals with broadband providers for preferential treatment. A second, 60-day round of public comments on the issue started July 16.

For more information on the FCC and net neutrality go to fcc.gov/openinternet and for more on the Regional Fiber Consortium’s work go to connectingoregon.org. Check out the Oregon Broadband Mapping Project here

 

Update:

The comment period for the FCC's net neutrality rules has been extended until July 18.