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Connecting Ocala Florida to Face Down COVID-19

The city’s municipal broadband network more than proved its value by connecting hospitals, schools, and local government to keep its citizens safe, healthy, and informed.

When Ocala, Fla., turned its electric utility’s fiber-optic network into a municipal broadband service, the city had no idea how vital high-speed Internet connections would become during a pandemic. As COVID-19 closed businesses, shuttered schools, and overwhelmed hospitals, Ocala Fiber Network (OFN) delivered more than enough bandwidth to support telemedicine, distance learning, and remote work, without a hitch.

How did a community of 61,000, 70 miles north of Orlando, build a successful Internet service provider (ISP) business that puts money back into the city’s general fund and is considered one of Ocala’s gems? It was a slow, methodical journey that began 25 years ago. In 1995, Ocala Electric Utility (OEU) decided to replace its older copper network and use fiber to connect substations as part of its supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system.

Communications is an integral part of smart grid technology, and OEU began to move beyond substations, using fiber to connect its business operations and, eventually, smart meters. With hundreds of miles of available fiber, both overhead and underground, the city saw an opportunity to expand the network to serve its citizens and businesses beyond automatic meter reading. A $4 million enterprise fund was created, and OFN was born.

The fledgling enterprise faced many challenges as it transitioned from a utility-driven fiber infrastructure to that of a full-service ISP. “We had to make a significant shift and build out a complete fiber backbone network, including the last mile to every customer,” said Mel Poole, OFN’s network director.

OFN also needed a large anchor customer to provide both revenue and a strong marketing story to attract new business. There was competition from the traditional industry players who had salespeople and marketing budgets. “We are not a monopoly,” said Poole. “We have to raise customer awareness and earn our business, just like the other providers.”

OFN’s first big break came when the local school district put out a request for proposal to connect Marion County’s 49 schools. The Ocala City Council gave OFN permission to bid on the $1.3 million contract, which it won. OFN put in over 48 miles of fiber to support the agreement and completed the project ahead of schedule and under budget.

This win gave OFN the momentum it needed to begin rolling out its gigabit fiber offerings to Ocala’s residents, businesses, libraries, hospitals, and local governments. The ISP developed a residential Internet offer of 1 Gig per second symmetrical (same download and upload speeds) for $60 per month. It also provided three levels of business service, co-location services, a network operations center, and options for dark fiber. OFN now faced twin challenges of getting customers to sign up and rolling out fiber that would meet demand without creating overcapacity.

Instead of pulling fiber to every home with the hope that most residents would subscribe to the service, OFN took a more systematic approach, assessing the demand on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. The city slowly deployed fiber in four neighborhoods, with a variety of income levels, using Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology.

It was slow going for some of the neighborhoods. Older residents liked triple-play services, which included television, telephone, and Internet access. OFN only offered high-speed Internet access. “We needed the industry-standard take rate of 30 percent to be viable,” said Poole. “That meant we had to educate customers about the value of a high-speed connection from a locally run service and get them to realize they did not need hundreds of channels and let go of triple play.”

A marketing program helped residents understand that high-speed Internet access would let them connect VoIP telephone service and streaming movies and television. The program slowly took hold, and after 18 months, the take rate hit 30 percent and recently passed 40 percent. Local businesses also signed up, and OFN increased its staff from seven to 19 to handle the growth.

Today, OFN has 1,800 customers and over 750 miles of overhead and underground fiber. The enterprise is also profitable. Last year its profits increased by 37 percent, with 10 percent going into the city’s general fund. OFN also uses some of its profits to support programs for the school district and the community, including Boys and Girls clubs and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), which promotes local STEM education and activities.

OFN is not just about running a successful business. The city uses the network to connect municipal organizations like the fire department, libraries, the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, and the Marion County Courts. OFN also enables public services such as free Wi-Fi in city parks and throughout a 10-block corridor in the downtown area. Ocala also leverages the network to deliver smart city services, including public safety cameras and traffic management applications like real-time parking fee payment and enforcement. Drivers use their smartphones to pay for downtown parking.

A network this size does not run on fiber alone. It must connect hundreds of devices such as cameras, sensors, computers, and Wi-Fi access points. It must move and manage dozens of applications and vast amounts of data, including bandwidth-hungry video.

The city of Ocala partnered with Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise (ALE) to install state-of-the-art data switches that bring together the information and applications needed to provide smart city services. “We think of these switches as part of the network’s brain,” said Poole. Ocala had already been using ALE’s VoIP products in all its departments.

“Our engineers depend on the reliability and how easy the ALE equipment is to manage,” Poole said. “But even more important is the great customer service; they take good care of us.” ALE’s spirit of service is reflected at every level of the company. “They have my phone number and my manager’s phone number; we are available anytime they need us,” said Jim Monahan, ALE’s account director for the city.

That same spirit of service is what separates OFN from its competition. All the staff is local — customer service agents, engineers, and field technicians. Local people mean faster responses to customer needs, and this was essential when COVID-19 struck.

“We were able to quickly increase bandwidth to our hospitals so that there would be no buffering as they delivered telemedicine services,” noted Poole. “We reacted quickly because all of our equipment and staff are here in the community.”

OFN also helped the county’s rural schools with distance learning, especially for families who did not have high-speed Internet access. “We installed outdoor Wi-Fi access points at 10 schools so that parents and students could download assignments and upload homework from the parking lot,” said Poole. “The symmetrical service made a big difference since students often had to upload large files.”

The Wi-Fi access points are powered by ALE data switches, which also aggregate all the traffic on to the high-speed fiber links that connect the schools. Once the schools reopen, the access points will be moved into the downtown area to increase the footprint of free Internet access.

For Mel Poole and OFN, providing essential services during these difficult times is all in a day’s work. He and his team are also responsible for the city’s internal ALE telephone system and programmed it to enable the city’s call center agents to work from home.

Running and maintaining an ISP takes the skills, knowledge, and experience of a dedicated team of engineers, help desk staff, and outside technicians.

Despite these challenges, Poole is enthusiastic about the benefits and value municipally owned providers like OFN can bring to a community. “I would encourage other cities who provide utility services to consider municipal broadband,” said Poole. For him, it is the “third” utility and one that underpins a community’s economic development with an ethos of service.

Cities attempting to deploy municipal broadband often face opposition from large telecommunications and cable companies. Their lobbyists have convinced many states to ban community broadband networks. Using taxpayer money to subsidize Internet services is one of the central arguments against municipal broadband. OFN has proven this argument wrong through careful planning and marketing. Its profitable, self-sustaining operation speaks volumes.

Poole has a bit of advice for those considering whether they can provide broadband services. “You have to think like a utility — 10 to 30 years out,” he says. “Many city councils want to see a fast return, but the reality is more like 10 years.” Poole spends a lot of time educating the city council about taking a longer view of OFN’s value both as a service and as a source of funding for other community needs.

COVID-19 will continue to cast a long shadow, and cities will work hard to maintain the health and safety of their citizens. Connecting communities to the information and services they most need to stay informed and healthy has never been more essential.

For Ocala, Fla., connecting the community, even in these trying times, is business as usual, though not entirely about business. “In the end, it is all about delivering a public service,” says Poole.