Prospective RC Broadband Project Secondary Projects
Secondary and Side Projects
The following should be considered to improve cost effectiveness of the county broadband project.
Joint County Survey & Expanded Feasibility Study
Research, planning, and member recruitment for this project will involve contacting all county residents, assessing all utility lines and roadside right-of-way, checking side-road conditions for cable crew access, and so on.
Survey Joint Ventures: This could be done in conjunction with similar work by county or state agencies, or they could help fund this work done by the co-op in exchange for collecting more information. Utility and other companies may be interested in this too.
Quality of Service Survey: Ask sets of questions like these, and repeat this survey years later for comparison.
- Incumbent provider quality of service, including types of services used, satisfaction with those services, service problems (type, frequency, duration), cost of service, cost of service problems (e.g. lost work), cost of any measures taken to get better service (e.g. driving to library). Include telephone, cellular, TV services.
- Service needs, for themselves personally and for work, for their family, and others which use their connection (e.g. visiting friend, family, neighbor ‘borrowing’ wifi). Add secondary project services (below).
TV White-Space Fixed-Wireless
Jason Phares, from Glenville State College, said he is investigating this as a possibility for Gilmer County and wants to work with WVU on expanding their campus wide Super Wifi (802.11af) pilot project into rural broadband. Problem is no funding, on both sides ~ residents should be able to pay for it via a co-op.
Tech Notes: TV white-space is the VHF & UHF bands from 54Mhz to 790Mhz which is not in active use by a licensed television broadcaster or other protected device (e.g. microphones, TV crew cameras, etc) – its thought of, yet is not only, the old analog TV channels not used by DTV broadcast. Access to these bands is managed by a geolocation database, which is an automated system that grants a temporary allowance for unlicensed usage of specific channels not in use, which can be automatically renewed except when a licensed user needs it. Simply put, there aren’t many TV channels in our region so a large number of bands are available. There are two IEEE standards, Super Wifi 802.11af ~25-35Mbps over 1km, and 802.22 ~19Mbps at ~30km.
Fill Service Gap: Use super wifi 802.11af to fill the gap between Penta Route completion and years to full FTTH deployment, and provide mobile broadband along the Penta Route. Instead of worrying about wireless suppressing FTTx take rates, include county-wide portion of the FTTx installation cost share divided over 4 to 5 years of service (like installation loans), so people end up paying their share even if they don’t get FTTx and offering wireless doesn’t hurt non-wireless members. Could also offer it to people in Spencer blocked from co-op FTTx but unable to get broadband for some reason.
Mobile Service: Gradually extend 802.11af coverage as members want it and mobile devices become available that support it. With enough access points around the county eventually this could become the co-op’s own 4G service. Best case scenario is cheap pre-paid phones supporting it become available.
Internet of Things: Check for Super Wifi hardware which also supports 802.11ah “HaLow” for an internet of things service. This offers low-power low-bandwidth ~100kbps x 26 sub-channels over ~1km, 900MHz, like a long range Bluetooth. Intended usage is smart grid equipment, water & gas line sensors, weather stations, road traffic sensors, other smart infrastructure stuff, maybe smart home stuff spread out over farm outbuildings.
Delayed FTTH Take-Rate Contingency: While its likely most residents will want faster broadband provided by FTTH, its also possible the costs will be too high, available financing too low, and volunteer rates too low, resulting in estimated take-rates below project viability. In this case, the most rural, remote, and costly network segments could be changed to provide wireless broadband coverage, with later fiber build out at a rate the co-op and residents can afford (years later).
Community Centers & Co-op Houses
Community Centers: Many communities in the county need community centers, the broadband project could help organize that, provide internet access, and eventually provide loans and small grants. In return, the community center would need to host network equipment, local member meetings, support field techs, and so on.
Co-op Houses: Buy houses in each community and renovate into local offices, and multi-role support facilities for co-op members. Would include offices and equipment for volunteers to do their work, and for members to rent, along with similar local business support services. Could fill most other community center roles. Each house would be required to generate enough revenue to cover co-op costs over ~15 years, like a pseudo mortgage, if local members default then co-op membership vote on it ~ let it slide, or change local management, or sell the house.
Vocational Tech Training
The co-op will need to create a training program, initially for staff and volunteers, then later to meet expanding demand from tech & web services. This could be expanded to serve the community on a larger scale with vocational training courses, apprenticeship programs, lab facilities, work agency for IT professionals, various tech industry certifications, and regional marketing to attract high tech companies needing these skills. Federal, State, & private grant funds are available to cover some costs, the co-op can subsidize some facilities and equipment, other businesses should contribute something. Tuition should be full market value with financing, token down-payments plus certification exam fees, with a “work local” grant that pays off their bill over ~5 years.
Appalachian Electric Power and Mon Power might be interested in deploying smart grid hardware to co-op members and their immediate neighbors. This requires a reliable always-on connection to each residence, generally provided by fiber to the street then wireless to houses, but FTTH is ideal, especially with a battery backup.
This enables the power grid controller to more accurately track grid activity, analyze power usage, remotely read meters, detect power outages, and more, passively. With additional hardware the smart grid can actively coordinate cycling of HVAC, refrigerators, electric & plug-in hybrid cars, and other high draw equipment among neighbors to level power load. This reduces brown outs, reduces need for excess capacity, improves quality of service, saves the company money, and should reduce power bills (but will probably increases company profits instead).
See Concord, MA case study for an example of a FTTx project that was an add-on to a smart grid project.
For a good basic overview, visit https://www.smartgrid.gov and click “What is the Smart Grid?”. For more details click on the Recovery Act Projects, it includes some in our region. This needs further research to garner an idea of what they have done, what they need, and what they might offer, prior to discussing it with AEP and Mon Power.
Tech Service Shop & Community Value Retention
Spencer has had a few computer shops open and fail over the past ~15 years, the local market is too small & inconsistent, computer equipment obsoletes fast enough people replace rather than pay for repairs, and the overhead of a dedicated storefront is too high. The co-op will require a tech workshop for its own needs, this could be expanded to provide services to members, and maybe the general public. This has potential to scale larger for more economic development, especially with a multi-county project.
Repair Services: Offer repair services for computers, networks, office equipment, other electronics, maybe appliances, maybe HVAC systems, and maybe other electronic stuff. Expansion depends on local need, a lack of local service, and co-op willingness to float it as a sort of vocational jobs program.
Equipment as a Service: Integrated maintenance and equipment rental services on an economy of scale to provide members what they need, handle any problems that arise, and at an affordable price. This works because most people don’t really care what they use, as long as it reliably does what they need it to do. Can also leverage network and data center resources to replace older PC’s with thin clients to virtual machines and network storage. Some credit could be given for member’s old salvageable equipment.
- Computers: Similar setup to Dell business services but local. Subscribed members would set their price point, desired usage, feature preferences, and pick it up the next day or have it delivered for a fee. Most software problems can be fixed remotely, for hardware problems members can bring it to the shop, or a tech can visit for a fee. Focus on Linux, only gamers and legacy software requires Windows.
- Home Theater PC (HTPC): Co-op’s answer to set-top boxes, “genie”, “hopper”, TiVo, etc is Linux PC’s. Low-end would be “TV stick” or similar small devices, with capabilities equivalent to a smart phone. Mid-range is a regular HTPC built with off-the-shelf PC components, similar in price to a DVR, or more for a gaming variant. Higher-end systems fork in three directions, high-end gaming rigs, high-end theater systems, and a sort of jack-of-all-trades home central computer with hundreds of functions.
Custom Computers: Any self respecting PC tech with the gumption to open a computer shop aspires to custom build new computers to fit peoples needs, and occasional high-end gaming rigs that are the highlights of the year as something cool. Problem is most don’t approach this from a viable business perspective, one-off PC projects with no economy of scale have so little profit margin that a single hiccup can make it a net loss (e.g. buggy new hardware releases), or requires charging customers so much they won’t return. Organizing this into two to four order cycles per year, with member events, financing, timed with manufacturer new product releases, timed with component price swings, bulk orders, and so on, would increase scale, increase margins and/or lower prices. Custom work could still be done but at higher prices and still using some bulk components. Consider it a paradigm adjustment, inject agricultural seasonality into the business model (e.g. Intel tick-tock, holiday sales).
Custom Cases & Mods: There is a small global market for high-end custom computer cases, ranging from special applications to highly artistic, and high-end modern hardware in old sentimental stuff. Work with local artisans and craftspeople to develop this into an online tech boutique.
Linux Support and Training: Windows licenses are expensive ($100 to $200) but for most people Linux can be a free drop-in replacement – with the exception of most new games, some legacy applications, and other niche stuff. Support and training costs may reduce their savings but keeping that money local creates jobs.
Local Components: Some of these components are accessible to make locally. This might be a stretch for Roane alone, but makes sense for a multi-county project. Also makes sense from the perspectives of both, making this region more self reliant, and potentially attracting tech companies.
- Sheet Metal Cases: Higher durability compared to plastic makes these more cost effective over a longer service life, spanning a few hardware generations, and end of life salvage value to promote recycling. It so happens Jim Bostic is setting up a factory near Spencer that does similar work.
- Wood Trim: Use CNC woodworking equipment to make face plates and trim for the metal cases, its a local resource (both old and new). High-end models and custom orders could be handcrafted.
- Circuit Boards: Cut, print, assemble, and bake main-boards for system-on-a-chip type devices, some PC components, set-top boxes, and various gadgets. This is fairly easy, mostly automated manufacture, open source designs are available, members of the open source community are available to hire for consulting, and the chip manufacturers (e.g. Intel) are generally supportive of anything like this (especially if it carries their “powered by” logo and gets media attention as something new or different). New development of interest to the open source hardware community can be funded in part from crowd funding sites.
Salvaged Hardware: Work with the Roane County Recycling Center e-waste program (another work in progress) to accept computers, electronics, and maybe other stuff. Refurbish the good stuff, strip the bad for parts, and return the remainder for the Recycling Center to sell as e-waste – this fills their need for volunteer techs to do this. Sell or rent the refurbished hardware to members at cost-plus (mostly labor), or to the public for more. Use some hardware in partnership with other community organizations to teach computer repair and support needy families, because a lack of money is no reason to go without a computer (takeover this function from Recycling Center e-waste program). Saves Recycling Center from needing a workshop. Can be extended to all electronics.
Tool Library & Rental: Offer a wide variety of tools, gadgets, equipment, and durable stuff for rental, at operating cost plus a small percentage for program growth. Would consist of whatever members donate plus co-op investments, a secure storage area in tech workshop, and lockers in community centers & co-op houses.
Cooperative Development Fund
Paying off the startup debt will be a significant burden on the co-op and its members for several years. Once that is cleared there will be an opportunity to redirect that years-long established cash flow into a development fund. Initially this will allow for expansion of network infrastructure and member services, but would also empower the co-op to do many other things, and extend the scope of its influence in the county.
For example, invest ~half of the debt payment, $20/mo from co-op revenue plus $20/mo member donation is $40 a month, or $480 a year, for 2,000 members its $960k a year, 3k is $1.44M/yr, 4k is $1.92M/yr, 5k is $2.4M/yr. This is a lot of money for solving local problems privately, in all cases the co-op membership would discuss this openly and vote to fund projects. Consider this a “for-community-profit” business model.
Here some project ideas…
Service Area Expansion: HB3093 restricts state loan insurance related funding from use in network construction in areas already served by existing broadband service providers. Once the loans are paid-off and the co-op can self fund expansion, expand FTTx service into Spencer to finally complete the county-wide network. Note, this could be done earlier with independent private funding.
County Outer Backbone Ring: Multistage progression. First, connect the far ends of the Penta-Route to provide network redundancy in case a major line is cut. Second, reconfigure those far end connections and add routers, to convert it into an outer ring. Third, add secondary internet gateways to the outer ring routers, to improve internet performance, and add redundancy in case the core routers in Spencer go down. Finally, add partial network facility redundancy to points around the outer ring, to improve service performance, and redundancy to Spencer facilities.
County Energy Cooperative: Work with members to start a division, subsidiary, or spin-off co-op that focuses on energy projects. Starting with residential improvements to energy efficiency, weatherization, solar panels, micro wind, micro hydro, and more to reduce power bills, keep money local, and create local jobs. If AEP and Mon Power do a smart grid project, then work with them for net metering and whatever benefit they can get out of it to offset the reduced revenue. Note, federal funding might be available to start this project earlier.
County Fuel Cooperative: Assume oil prices will eventually rise, by a lot, and we’ll face $5 a gallon gasoline and diesel, that’s roughly the price were alternative fuels become cost effective. Bio-diesel, work with area farmers to grow canola, get area commercial kitchens to buy & use in fryers, then recycle it into bio-diesel – simple conversion if blended, heavier refining if used straight. More bio-diesel, work with large area CO2 emitters to attach algae bio-reactors to their exhausts. For old gasoline trucks wood-gas is an option, the equipment can be manufactured locally. Could buy & refurbish older plug-in hybrids, needs to start before fuel prices rise and used hybrids become unavailable. Could add a courier service, use high efficiency small electric vehicles to roam the county delivering stuff people need, this is cost effective at $5/gal gas.
Cooperative Economic Development: Invite members to submit ideas to the co-op membership for funding, which will create jobs, keep money local, increase local self reliance, or otherwise make a significant improvement to the community. Generally these would be loans or co-op business ventures that would eventually return the investment in some fashion. Grants would be a harder sell to the membership. Between continuous investment in the fund, returns on investments, matching external funds, and the overall positive feedback loop of local economic development, over years this could amass enormous amounts of money able to reshape the county economy.