Amidst aging infrastructure, Ashland is looking to modernize city-owned internet

Chad Sobotka stands just outside the heart of the Ashland Fiber Network. It is a small room, hidden in a massive former garage space has become an administrative office.

Although it is called Ashland Fiber Network, the company delivers internet to the homes of customers via cable, the same method as receiving cable TV.

“Depending on the area you live in, it will determine which router you are connected to,” said Sobotka, AFN’s senior network engineer. “So your cable modem at home, the first stop on your journey to the internet is one of these.”

Sobotka points to two massive devices, part of a chain of computers, that translate the signal coming from the outside world into something that a cable modem at home can understand.

The network was created in the late 1990s, after discovering the city’s only web provider would not upgrade its infrastructure to meet rising demands. Ashland decided to offer her own internet service.

Now all this equipment is getting old.

“That’s how many failure points there are in a cable modem network,” Sobotka says gesturing to more than a dozen metal boxes placed on a conference room table.

While AFN was a pioneer for city-owned internet at its inception, the service later fell behind other municipal fiber networks.

For the current system to work, a long chain of interconnecting devices must be spread across the city to translate the signal between fiber optic and cable. Sobotka says they are dealing with several failures a month now.

Chad Sobotka is holding an open small, toasted metal box on a conference room table.  Inside are some wires and circuits.  The metal box has a rubber fork around the edge.

Roman Battaglia

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Jefferson Public Radio

Chad Sobotka looks inside one of the many boxes seen through the city that translate the internet signal from fiber optic to cable. Many of the components inside require power and can be sensitive to water damage. Over time, the seals around the box can break, causing failures.

“If water flows inside it, it could cause failure,” he says. “If the main line is loose, it could also cause a failure or a squirrel coming around and biting the main line, it could cause a crack, fill with water – explosion – failure.”

Other government-owned hosting companies arose in Oregon in the years after AFN was created. The Monmouth Independence Network, or MINET, was formed in 2004 for similar reasons as AFN.

Coming later meant that MINET was able to take advantage of cutting-edge hardware that delivers fiber-optic cables directly to customers’ homes.

MINET’s Interim Managing Director, PJ Armstrong, says they have been thinking about the future of the network from the beginning.

“We went with that technology with the idea that it would be less effective to do upgrades in the future,” he says.

AFN is now following in the footsteps of others and learning how the company can make the system more easily upgradeable in the future.

But with major upgrades comes significant costs. Sobotka estimates it could take up to $ 10 million to replace all those cable boxes around the city with fiber-optics.
That’s why city officials are assessing how the network can be upgraded to avoid taking on more debt than necessary. The city is still paying off the debt it borrowed to build the network 25 years ago.

“We don’t have five years to make this decision”

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins says the city is worried about taking on more debt.

“When you borrow money, as you know, even if it’s good money, and even if it’s with a good interest rate, it still comes together,” says Akins. “This is one of the challenges we face. Part of working with a partnership is to get out of it. “

The Ashland City Council is considering entering into a public-private partnership, which would mean that the city is giving away some of its investment in the network to a private company and allowing them to operate the day-to-day operations of the service.

AFN already has a number of public-private partnerships now, in the way the service is distributed to residents. Customers can register through the city directly, but Ashland also contracts with partners including Ashland Home Net, Computer Country or Jeffnet. These partners can provide additional services in addition to the Internet, such as a home phone or cable TV.

Beige plastic, rectangular computer with many buttons sits on a blue box.  An orange cable is plugged into the front.  On the small, black and green screen is a graphic.  The graph shows one line with a series of spikes.  some spines are thin, others have a large plateau.

Roman Battaglia

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Jefferson Public Radio

Cable spectrum analyzer in the AFN server room. On the screen is a visual representation of internet and cable TV signals coming out to the homes of customers.

According to the activist group the Institute for Local Self-Dependence, about 30 municipal fiber networks operate through this type of partnership, such as the City of Westminster, Maryland. In Westminster, the city owns the fiber cable, but leases it out to Ting Internet.

But there are benefits to maintaining control of the network, according to Ashland City Council Member Tonya Graham. The city has advocated for the social equality role that comes with being a community-owned web host.

“It’s one of the beauties of AFN that we control it for the benefit of the Ashland community,” Graham says. “That means when something like the pandemic happens, we could say we’ll make sure every student who needs internet access has it, whether they can pay for it or not.”

Graham adds that the network benefits all Ashland residents, even if only about 40 percent of people subscribe to it.

“Having that competition right now keeps our rates in Ashland lower than they could be otherwise. We see that in other places where there is really no competition, ”she says. “They have no obligations under tax structures like other utilities are. And so we already see the benefit of having AFN, even in its current state. ”

AFN’s only high-speed internet competitor is Spectrum, which charges rates under AFN. Graham says Spectrum only charges such low rates because it needs to compete with AFN, which charges customers for internet at a cost.
AFN Senior Network Engineer Sobotka has been trying to bring these updates to the network for almost a decade. The sooner the city is up to date, he says, the easier it will be to move forward.

“We don’t have five years to make this decision,” he says. “I would have liked to see the decision already made, but we are working as quickly as possible with our limited resources.”

Ashland is hiring a consultant who specializes in municipal fiber to help decide the best move for the city. Akins hopes to have a concrete idea next year.

Without change, the Ashland Fiber Network risks becoming an outdated relic, no longer the future vision it was when it was created.

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