Amid aging infrastructure, Ashland looks to modernize city-owned internet

Chad Sobotka is located right outside the heart of the Ashland Fiber Network. It’s a small room, tucked away in a huge former garage space converted into an administrative office.

Although called the Ashland Fiber Network, the company brings Internet to customers’ homes via cable, the same method used to get cable TV.

“Depending on the area you live in will determine which router you’re connected to,” says Sobotka, senior network engineer at AFN. “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 a cable modem at home can understand.

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

Now all this equipment is starting to become obsolete.

“These are the single points of failure in a cable modem network,” says Sobotka, pointing to more than a dozen metal boxes spread out on a conference room table.

While AFN pioneered city-owned internet in its early days, the service has since fallen behind other municipal fiber networks.

For the current system to work, a long chain of network devices must be installed throughout the city to translate the signal between fiber optics and cable. Sobotka says that right now they are dealing with multiple failures per month.

Chad Sobotka holds open a small metal box the size of a toaster on a conference room table.  Inside there are some wires and circuit boards.  The metal case has a rubber gasket around the edge.

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Jefferson Public Radio

Chad Sobotka looks into one of the many boxes seen throughout the city that translate the Internet signal from fiber to cable. Much of the internal components require power and can be sensitive to water damage. Over time, the seals around the box can break and cause failure.

“If water leaks into it, that could cause a failure,” he says. “If the main line fitting is loose, that could also cause a failure or a squirrel comes up and bites the main line, that could cause a crack, it fills with water, boom, failure.”

Other government-owned Internet providers have sprung up in Oregon in the years since AFN’s creation. Monmouth Independence Network, or MINET, was formed in 2004 for similar reasons as AFN.

Arriving later meant that MINET was able to take advantage of state-of-the-art hardware that delivers fiber optic cables directly to customers’ homes.

MINET interim general manager PJ Armstrong says they thought about future-proofing the network from the start.

“We chose that technology with the idea that it would be less impactful 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 easier to upgrade in the future.

But with major upgrades come major costs. Sobotka estimates that 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 evaluating 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 concerned about taking on more debt.

“When you borrow money, as you know, even if it’s good money and even if it has a good interest rate, it still adds up,” says Akins. “That is one of the challenges we have. Part of working with an association is getting out from under that.”

Ashland City Council is considering entering into a public-private partnership, which would mean the city would hand over part of its stake in the network to a private company and allow it to manage the day-to-day operations of the service.

AFN already has some public-private partnerships at the moment, in the way service is distributed to residents. Customers can sign up through the city directly, but Ashland also contracts with partners like Ashland Home Net, Computer Country, or Jeffnet. These partners may provide additional services in addition to the Internet, such as home phone or cable television.

A beige plastic rectangular computer with lots of buttons sits on top of a blue box.  An orange cable is plugged into the front.  On the small black and green screen is a graph.  The graph shows a line with a series of peaks.  some peaks are thin, others have a large plateau.

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Jefferson Public Radio

A cable spectrum analyzer in the AFN server room. On the screen is a visual representation of Internet and cable TV signals heading to customers’ homes.

According to the advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Sufficiency, about 30 municipal fiber networks operate through this type of association, such as the city of Westminster, Maryland. In Westminster, the city owns the fiber cable but leases it from Ting Internet.

But there are benefits to maintaining control of the network, according to Ashland City Councilwoman Tonya Graham. The city has championed the social equity role that comes with being a community-owned Internet provider.

“That’s one of the beauties of AFN, is that we run it for the benefit of the Ashland community,” says Graham. “That means when something like the pandemic happens, we’ll be able to say we’re going to make sure every student who needs internet access has it, whether they can afford 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 lower in Ashland than they otherwise could be. We see it in other places where there really is no competition,” she says. “They are not under any obligation in terms of rate structures like other utilities are. And so we’re already seeing a benefit of having AFN, even in its current state.”

AFN’s only high-speed Internet competitor is Spectrum, which charges rates below AFN. Graham says Spectrum only charges such low fees because it needs to compete with AFN, which charges internet customers at cost.
AFN Senior Network Engineer Sobotka has been trying to bring these updates to the network for nearly a decade. The sooner the city is upgraded, 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 fast as we can with our limited resources.”

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

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

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