A New Way to Finance Fiber

I recently was part of a team that brought the financing to build fiber in Dallas, Oregon. The new fiber business is operating under the name Willamette Valley Fiber. Dallas is a community of over 15,000 located near to the state capital of Salem. As the title of this blog suggests, this project was funded in what I am sure is a new way for the industry.

The funding uses what might best be described as private activity bonds. This are municipal-like bonds that are distributed in the public bond market. In this case the bonds, and the network, are owned by a non-profit corporation. The primary benefit to this financing structure is that the City doesn’t have to go onto the hook for the new debt – something that many cities are reluctant or unable to do. Building fiber networks is expensive and many cities are unable to tackle the size of the needed debt. In this case, the City of Dallas, while thrilled to be getting the fiber network, is not associated with or a party to the bond financing.

If there is any one hurdle to the financing structure it’s that these are pure revenue bonds – meaning that they only are supported by the revenues of the project. There are no backdrop guarantees by a City or anybody else to support the bonds if the project doesn’t perform as expected. That means that any business plan funded this way must be solid and conservative to make sure that revenues will cover costs. That leads to a few key characteristics for a project to be funding in this way:

  • Bond financing generally will have higher up-front costs than other kinds of financing, but they are usually offset by lower interest rates. The high up-front costs mean this kind of financing is only cost effective for projects the size of Dallas or larger.
  • It’s essential that there are no cost overruns from construction because there is no party, like an underlying City, that can step in to make up for any cash shortfalls. This means that engineering must be done before funding, and that a design-builder must be found that’s willing to build the network for a guaranteed price. This means tying down not only fiber costs, but the costs of drops and electronics.
  • It’s also mandatory to understand the community, and that means doing surveys and other market research to make sure that the community is receptive to buying from a new fiber network. It’s easy to just assume that fiber sells, but one of our products at CCG Consulting is doing surveys and we’ve seen major differences from market to market, sometimes even within the same region.
  • It’s also mandatory to have a cost structure that minimizes expenses. The best way to do that is to find an ISP operator who’s already successfully operating a fiber business. There are significant expense saving when an ISP opens an additional market. The fiber business is largely an economy of scale business and there are huge benefits to an operator for spreading joint and common costs across an additional market.

This means that the best structure for this kind of financing is to find an existing ISP willing to tackle operating the new market. That operator will benefit financially by allocating costs to the new market, and the new venture benefits by lower costs. As an example, if an ISP opens up a new market that doubles their size, the cost for something like the salary of their CFO effectively is halved for the original business as half of the CFO’s cost is allocated to the new market. The new market benefits by getting a CFO for half of the cost compared to hiring one.

In Dallas the operator is MINET, a municipal ISP that is owned jointly by the nearby cities of Monmouth and Independence Oregon. MINET has been effective as an ISP with a market penetration in their own markets of nearly 85%. The Dallas expansion offers the opportunity to double their customer base, meaning that they can allocate a high percentage of existing costs to the Dallas venture – a win-win for both parties.

Our team is interested in developing more fiber ventures that meet the above criteria. I’d like to hear from communities that want fiber and that already know of a nearby quality ISP that would be interested in operating the business.

I’m also interested in hearing from existing ISPs that can meet our criteria. We’re only interested in ISPs with a track record of success. An ISP can benefit two ways from such a venture – they can gain economy of scale and allocate a lot of existing expenses away from their current business. An ISP-operator also can benefit from profit sharing if the new venture is successful.

You can contact me at blackbean2@ccg.comm if you think you have a project that can benefit from this kind of financing.

Working From Home

Governments are starting to catch onto to the idea that one of the most dynamic parts of the new economy is people working from home. Governor Phil Scott of Vermont just signed legislation that provides an incentive for people who want to move to Vermont and work from their homes.

The program consists of grants of up to $5,000 per year, not to exceed $10,000 to help cover the cost of relocating to the state. To qualify for the grants a worker must already be employed by an out-of-state company, work primarily from home and move to the state after January 1, 2019.

The overall program isn’t large, set at $125,000 for 2019, $250,000 for 2020 and back to $125,000 in 2022. If awards are made at the $5,000 level this would cover moving 100 new workers to the state.

In economic development terms, landing 100 new full-time families using a $500,000 tax subsidy is a bargain. Governments regularly provide tax incentives of this size to attract factories or other large employers. The impact on the economy from 100 new high-income families is gigantic and over time time the taxes and other local benefits from these new workers will greatly exceed the cost of the program.

Vermont is like many states and finds itself with an aging population while also seeing an outflow of young people seeking work in New York, Boston and other nearly cities. These grants create an opportunity for young families to move back to the state.

One key aspect of the work-at-home economy is good broadband. Many companies are now insisting that employees have an adequate broadband connection at a home before agreeing to allow a worker to work remotely. I’ve talked to a few people who recently made the transition to home work and they had to certify the speed and latency of their broadband connection.

One reason that this program can work in Vermont is there are areas of the state with fiber broadband. The City of Burlington built a citywide fiber network and local telcos and other cities in the state have built fiber in more rural parts of the state. But like most of America, Vermont still has many rural areas where broadband is poor or non-existent.

What surprises me is that many communities with fiber networks don’t take advantage of this same opportunity. It’s easy for a community with good broadband to not recognize that much of America today has lousy broadband. Communities with fiber networks should consider following Vermont’s example.

I know of one community that is doing something similar to the Vermont initiative. The City of Independence, Oregon has benefitted from a municipal fiber network since 2007, operating under the name of MINET and built jointly with the neighboring city of Monmouth. The city has a new economic development initiative that is touting their fiber network. Nearby Portland is now a hotbed for technology companies including a lot of agricultural technology research.

Independence has one major benefit over Portland and the other cities in the state – gigabit broadband. The new economic development initiative involves getting the word out directly to workers in the agricultural research sector and letting them know that those that can work at home can find a simpler and less expensive lifestyle by moving to a small town. They hope that young families will find lower housing prices and gigabit fiber to be an attractive package that will lure work-at-home families. Independence is still close enough to Portland to allow for convenient visits to the main office while offering faster broadband than can be purchased in the bigger city.