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Open Access

Ownership Models Are Evolving to Serve the Unserved, Say Panelists at Digital Infrastructure Investment

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Screenshot of UTOPIA Fiber CEO Roger Timmerman from the webcast

August 11, 2020 — As America prioritizes closing the digital divide, critical last-mile digital infrastructure ownership models are expanding and differentiating to serve the unserved.

Different towns across America are in different situations in terms of the availability of existing digital infrastructure assets.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment for complete information and summaries of the sessions from the Broadband Breakfast mini-conference, which is being re-broadcast at Broadband Communities Virtual Summit.

At the conference, leaders of entities actively expanding the traditional financing, operating and managing models of networks spoke on the evolution of ownership models and the future of last-mile infrastructure.

The session was moderated by Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks program of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

UTOPIA Fiber is a broadband provider active in 16 Utah cities. It deploys and operates a fiber-to-the-premises network to businesses and households within the cities it serves.

UTOPIA Fiber utilizes a flexible approach, deploying different models depending on the setting, which enables more individuals to join the network, said CEO Roger Timmerman.

Under its typical model, UTOPIA Fiber and its member cities own and operate the middle-mile and last-mile of fiber networks, while residential customers purchase service from about 30 different competitive internet service providers operating on the network.

Because different locales have different needs, UTOPIA Fiber models the traditional open-access approach in other markets, Timmerman said.

Monica Webb, director of market development and government affairs at Ting Internet, maintained the importance of utilizing different models depending on the needs of local stakeholders.

Ting is an internet service provider that has similarly worked in many public-private partnerships, building and servicing fiber networks across the United States.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, the first market Ting internet entered, the company bought an existing fiber provider, meaning that it operates as a vertically-integrated private company within the city.

Yet in Westminster, Maryland, the local government led the effort to build last-mile fiber infrastructure. Ting then partnered with the city to operate on the network.

In Fullerton, California, SiFi Networks launched an open access network that enabled other private companies, such as Ting and Gigabit Now, to compete to deliver services.

According to Webb, open access models benefit the company by allowing them to take on less design and construction responsibilities so that they can instead focus on providing reliable service to customers.

Peggy Schaffer, executive director of ConnectME Authority, spoke about the Maine initiative, an effort aimed at expanding broadband access to areas which have little prospect for access to high speed broadband.

ConnectME awards grants for last-mile infrastructure, which provide a percentage of the cost. The grants are then matched with funding from an internet service provider or a community.

According to Schaffer, ConnectME aims to build partnerships with communities and businesses to identify needs and highlight opportunities across the state.

In discussion, the group highlighted barriers to last-mile infrastructure investment.

Webb detailed how incumbent providers fought Ting when they attempted to build last-mile infrastructure in areas where incumbents had existing fiber assets.

“If AT&T has existing fiber in a neighborhood, we won’t build that neighborhood,” Webb said.

While the panelists noted the slew of obstacles in their way, they still expressed hope.

Timmerman reported that demand has vastly increased for last-mile fiber infrastructure as teleworking becomes the new normal.

“UTOPIA is adding anywhere from 900 to 1100 new customers every month,” said Timmerman. “People need this type of connectivity.”

Broadband is a street-by-street battle, he added, and creative reactive models are necessary to connect netizens to reliable last-mile infrastructure.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Goes to Court in Utah Over American Fork’s Build Permit Refusals

Fiber builder says it has been denied permits that have harmed it and its customers, despite an existing city agreement.

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Photo of Twin Peaks in American Fork, Utah, by Bryant Olsen used with permission

October 13, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of American Fork in Utah for breach of contract after the city allegedly denied build permits to the fiber builder despite there being an existing contract between the two parties.

The fiber provider, which runs an open network on which private telecoms rent space on to provide services, alleges the city had approved some permits that only allowed it to construct backbone transport lines through the city connecting other cities, but denied it key permits that would have allowed it to extend services to UTOPIA Fiber customers inside the city. Those services include connections to American Fork’s public schools.

In July 2020, the city allegedly terminated the 2018 rights-of-way agreement with no explanation, the lawsuit claims. It also alleges that the city specifically discriminated against UTOPIA Fiber by adding additional scrutiny to its permit requests when it believed no such scrutiny existed for other providers.

Broadband Breakfast attempted to make contact with the city, but a phone call was not answered and a voicemail message was not returned by the time of publication.

“American Fork’s refusal to approve permit requests by or for UTOPIA for service laterals for customers within American Fork has harmed UTOPIA, its customers, and the private ISPs who wish to offer services within American Fork using UTOPIA’s Network,” the lawsuit said. “In some cases, UTOPIA has been forced to buy capacity from other network providers that are allowed to install infrastructure in American Fork, so that UTOPIA can fulfill existing contracts with its customers.

“In other cases, UTOPIA has been forced to cancel existing customer orders for connections within American Fork and has lost significant revenues as a result,” the suit added. “UTOPIA has also recently been forced to cancel or reject over a dozen additional customer orders because UTOPIA is unable, due to American Fork’s conduct, to obtain the permits needed to fulfill those orders, and again lost significant revenues as a result.”

In a press release, UTOPIA’s executive director Roger Timmerman said the lawsuit was a “last resort and not an easy decision to make.

“It is our hope that with judicial review, American Fork City will reverse its policies, work within the boundaries of the law, and ultimately, act in the best interest of the people and businesses in American Fork City by allowing them access to the increased options UTOPIA Fiber provides,” Timmerman added.

UTOPIA Fiber is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah to force the city to pay the company damages sustained as a result of the alleged actions, to find the city violated the law with respect to its actions, and to force the city to cease the alleged “discriminatory and preferential actions” against the company.

UTOPIA Fiber, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, has designed, built, and operated more than $330 million worth of fiber projects in the state since 2009.

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Expert Opinion

Mike Harris: Investing in Open Access Fiber Optics is Investing in the Future

Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network has delivered $2.7 billion in social and economic benefits during its first decade.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Mike Harris, the co-founder of SiFi Networks.

In the United States, most Internet Service Providers are privately owned companies who have established copper network infrastructure exclusively for their own use, forcing customers into often unreliable, unsustainable internet package deals. But in 2010, the small city of Chattanooga, Tennessee invested in an early publicly owned fiber optic network.

As the co-founder of open-access telecom company SiFi Networks, I believe that investments in similar open-access infrastructure will help bridge community divides and futureproof a city’s economic and social prosperity.

According to a study by Bento Lobo, department head of finance and economics at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s municipal broadband has delivered over $2.69 billion worth of social and economic benefits during its first decade. With a population of just 185,000, imagine the potential savings for a city the size of New York.

So, how did Chattanooga achieve this and what were the city’s motivations?

Motives behind the madness

In 1969, Chattanooga was dubbed America’s dirtiest city. A post-industrial wasteland, it entered the late twentieth century with a stagnant economy, declining population and high levels of unemployment following the closure of its large manufacturing factories. It’s not surprising that decades later publicly owned utility company, EPB, chose to invest in its residents’ future.

EPB began replacing the underground copper wiring — originally established to exclusively handle telephone calls — with fiber optic cables feeding connectivity to the entire community. Fiber optic networks are vastly superior to copper because they can transport data using photons travelling at the speed of light. Previous infrastructure uses electrons capable of less than one per cent of that speed.

Where before Chattanooga was perceived as an underdeveloped, low-income area, suddenly businesses were moving in, employment was growing, and more adolescents were graduating from high school. Is it about time for other cities to follow suit?

Why other cities should follow suit

Internet connectivity is a human right much like water, electricity and gas utilities. Yet 21 million U.S. citizens are still living without reliable broadband according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Research also shows that 40 percent of schools and 60 percent of healthcare facilities outside metropolitan regions lack internet download speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. This is the acceptable speed defining a reliable broadband connection.

As the Chattanooga model demonstrates, the solution is the establishment of fiber optic infrastructure. With fiber networks, EPB offers residents and businesses gigabit speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps, or 1 Gigabit per second. In hindsight, with this capacity Hamilton County was well equipped to deal with the 75 percent increase in total volume of bandwidth being used per day during the pandemic, with residents being forced to work and educate from their homes.

These gigabit speeds also allow for a high degree of network responsiveness necessary for establishing a smart grid system. Most US cities use standard grid systems, which rely on consumers informing a service when they have a power outage or system failure.

Smart grids establish a two-way communication network using digital devices and automation so that service providers are notified immediately when problems occur. EPB’s Hamilton County smart grid, for example, can quickly re-route power around storm damage decreasing outages by 40 per cent in minutes, according to Lobo’s study. He estimates Chattanooga’s consumers will save $20.6 million per annum simply from avoiding spoilage and loss of productivity due to power outages.

Saving money, saving livelihoods

EPB has more than proven that fiber networks are a socioeconomic investment benefitting everyone, not just those lucky enough to live in a fiber area. Better, faster connectivity will enable businesses in all neighbourhoods to thrive, creating job opportunities. During the ‘gig decade’ (2011-2020), EPB’s fiber network directly supported the creation or retention of approximately 9,500 jobs in Hamilton County, luring the migration of global corporations like Volkswagen. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reflected this, stating Hamilton County’s unemployment rate being 4.7 percent as of November 2020, compared to the U.S. overall percentage of 6.7.

Chattanooga at night

The social benefits don’t stop here. A study by South Australia’s premier, Jay Weatherill, correlated gigabit networks with improved support for police and fire communications, wastewater management, traffic control and medical diagnostics. These are all features of SiFi Networks’ FiberCity and if Chattanooga has demonstrated anything, it is that fiber networks improve residents’ quality of living above all else.

FiberCity — the next step?

Chattanooga has demonstrated the importance of staying connected. To this end, becoming a SiFi Networks FiberCity could be the next step for cities across the US.

Privately financed networks, like SiFi Networks’, are often the best option to guarantee necessary funding for construction, maintenance and expansion of fiber infrastructure. Municipalities wouldn’t have to rely on taxpayer’s dollars, which can instead be diverted to healthcare, education and other social entities. During a period of continuous technological evolution, FiberCities have one simple mission: to combine advantages of Chattanooga’s gigabit speeds with futureproofed smart city services across the U.S.

Mike Harris is a successful entrepreneur and technologist, having previously founded Total Network Solutions Ltd in 1989, which he later sold to UK telecoms giant British Telecom in 2005. He subsequently co-founded SiFi Networks and is a current investor in the company. He is also the chairman and owner of the New Saints Football Club in Wales, UK. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Open Access

SiFi Networks Announces $2 Billion Plan to Put 30 Cities On Their Network

SiFi Networks uses private capital, at no cost to taxpayers, to fund its open access model.

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SiFi Networks CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson at the Tuesday press conference

HOUSTON, September 30, 2021 – SiFi Networks has announced a plan to commit $2 billion, sourced from private investors, to build open-access fiber networks in cities across America, the company said at an in person and virtual press conference at the Broadband Community Summit here on Tuesday.

SiFi has plans to begin developing fiber networks in 30 cities by the end of 2022 and to pass over 40,000 homes per month by early 2023.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of SiFi Networks, said that the company is working with more than 100 cities and has plans to expand FiberCity Aid, their program which decreases the network costs for ISPs providing service to low-income residents, in an effort to close the digital divide.

The company said that its open-access model gives “communities a much-needed choice against existing cable monopolies and duopolies whose networks have fallen far behind new technologies and skyrocketing consumer demand.” Open access networks allow multiple telecoms to use the same infrastructure to provide services.

Bawtree-Jobson, alluding to existing copper and cable networks being at or near capacity, warned that, “communities need to make policy decisions pertaining to broadband in the next 24 months. Prioritizing long-term competition should be first and foremost in the minds of lawmakers so their cities and towns are no longer hamstrung by large monopolies.”

Additionally, on Wednesday SiFi Networks and East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc announced that East Hartford, Connecticut, is receiving a $40 million all-fiber internet network. This will be both the first open access and first all-fiber network in the state of Connecticut, the company said.

“We’re able to partner with communities to build FiberCities on an Open Access network, using private capital, at no cost to taxpayers. It’s a win for consumers, it’s a win for business, and it’s a win for government,” said Bawtree-Jobson.

Founded in 2012, SiFi Networks’ business plan is to privately fund, build and operate citywide, open access, 100 percent fiber networks. Their networks are made available to internet service providers, providing them with the ability to lease space on SiFi’s network and enter a market quickly and efficiently. Service providers would then be expected to concentrate on customer service and support.

SiFi is currently developing or operating in more than 40 cities across the United States, covering over 1.5 million homes and businesses. SiFi has stated that ISPs of all sizes are welcome to partner with their network to provide thousands of Americans with fiber internet. The APG Group recently acquired 16.7 percent of SiFi Networks while also investing 500 million dollars for joint ventures into SiFi’s open access model.

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