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Smaller Internet Providers Were Instrumental to Fiber Deployment in 2020, Says Fiber Broadband Association

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Photo of Mike Render courtesy Broadband Communities

December 29, 2020 — Smaller internet service providers were critical to fiber growth in 2020, accounting for 88 percent of total capital expenditure, according to the results of the latest annual study of network operators and consumer research, conducted by Mike Render, CEO of RVA LLC, for the Fiber Broadband Association.

According to Render’s study, this year fiber came in second place in terms of home availability, with nearly 54 million U.S. homes being passed by fiber today. When it comes to overall availableness, fiber providers are currently only being beat out by the cable industry.

“This difference did not come from increased adoption, but increased deployment,” said Render, during FBA’s Fiber for Breakfast webinar, adding that the fiber industry is “seeing exciting trends.”

Render’s study reveals that many sectors recognize the importance and necessity of investing in fiber infrastructure.

“Tier 2 and Tier 3 ISPs performed very strong” this year, said Render, detailing that many rural and regional telecos, Wireless Internet Service Providers, electric utilities, and more, decided to embark on fiber deployments. While Tier 2 and Tier 3 service providers accounted for much of fiber deployment in 2020, 67 percent of homes with fiber available to them continue to rely on Tier 1 ISPs.

Render included a graph showing that fiber deployment first hit a peak in 2008, when Verizon set out on a major build. “Fiber deployment peaked again in 2019, as AT&T fulfilled its 12.5 million home build out obligation with the Federal Communications Commission, as a result of the company’s merger with DirectTV,” said Render.

According to Render, fiber deployment rates are down this year, partially due to large, Tier 1 providers, pausing build efforts after hitting deployment targets. Yet, he maintained the belief that a major investment cycle in fiber-to-the-home appears imminent.

“AT&T says they’re going to invest $2 to $4 billion in fiber next year to keep subscriber counts at the right level,” said Render, adding that he believes Verizon and CenturyLink will likely follow suit.

Many providers are starting to see the advantages that come along with fiber, including low operational expenses and the lack of turnaround associated with the technology. According to Render, within the statements of ISPs currently filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, including Frontier, there are many references to the idea that the companies could have avoided the fiasco, had they deployed fiber from the beginning.

Render reminded audiences that fiber broadband is necessary to support current upstream demands, saying the importance of high quality broadband to consumers has never been more clear. He warned of ‘in-home bandwidth rationing’ taking place in houses across the globe, and the incredible loss of productivity that comes with increasingly long online wait-time averages.

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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Fiber

Comcast Business Says It’s Expanding Into Fiber Builds in Greater Washington Area

The company is putting millions more into fiber infrastructure in the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia areas.

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William Stemper, president of Comcast Business

WASHINGTON, October 6, 2021 – Comcast’s business division announced a two-year, $28-million investment to expand fiber through the beltway region of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C., and West Virginia.

The company said in a press release Wednesday that $13 million of that was invested last year and $15 million have gone into projects that are underway or planned for this year. It is expected to connect nearly 7,000 additional businesses to speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second for large businesses, it said, adding it’s all part of the $110 million Comcast Business has spent in the area since 2015.

The expansion is part of a larger effort by telecommunications companies in this country to drive fiber to the premises, and to get ahead of the next generation 5G networks. As this is happening, more federal and state dollars are being plowed into broadband infrastructure as President Joe Biden sets his sights on providing access to high-speed internet to 100 percent of the country by the end of the decade.

“The ability to offer both diversity of network and carrier is becoming increasingly important to help drive economic development and transformation,” Ed Rowan, senior director of Comcast Business sales operations in the region, said in the release.

“Connectivity is at the core of this and, more than ever, is an integral factor as businesses expand and prepare for what’s next. Our network expansions across Comcast’s Beltway Region are the latest example of the significant technology investments we’ve made to increase the availability of our multi-Gigabit Ethernet services,” he added. “These investments will help foster economic development, transform our local communities, and better meet next-generation capacity needs across the region.”

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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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