Why You Should Live in Ammon, Idaho
Because Ammon has dark fiber. And your city probably doesn’t. Here’s why it matters.
What do Stockholm, Palo Alto, Rockport, Maine, and the tiny, highly-conservative town of Ammon, Idaho have in common? Answer: they all have dark fiber networks — thin, flexible strands of glass that are capable of carrying an unlimited amount of information in the form of pulses of light, but haven’t yet been “lit” by the electronics that trigger lasers to create those pulses and transmit them through the glass. Independent operators with access to these passive, dark networks provide their own electronics, creating a competitive, diverse, and choice-filled marketplace for unlimited-capacity, symmetrical (equal upload to download) high-speed Internet access. Once installed, upgrades to dark fiber come in the form of the electronics that create and receive those pulses of light; the strands of glass themselves won’t have to be replaced for many decades.
It’s important that more American mayors hear the dark fiber story.
Dark fiber is like a street grid: Towns and cities with unlit fiber networks in place are creating a fertile field for private competition, innovation, economic growth, and social justice without providing end-user services themselves. Once in place, dark fiber is like an inexhaustible natural resource, enriching both citizenry and commerce.
It’s beyond question that the benefits of fiber are great. It’s cheaper to maintain than old-fashioned copper wire installed by traditional phone companies. It doesn’t corrode and isn’t affected by water the way copper is. It uses less power than copper does, And — most importantly — it has far higher capacity, both upstream and downstream, than either copper or the wires used by cable companies (called “hybrid fiber-coaxial” cable). Copper can carry high bandwidth communications for only a few hundred yards before the signal sharply degrades, but fiber signals travel for miles and, as photonics steadily improve, the information-carrying capacity of a strand of glass appears to be unlimited. As more homeowners and businesses need to upload huge amounts of data to be present in new kinds of meeting places (think telemedicine, distance learning, telework), only fiber will be able to serve their growing needs for the coming decades.
(Amazingly, even people who should know this stuff have yet to grasp the marvels of fiber. I was in a meeting just the other day when a C-level executive of a major company that owns and manages commercial and residential properties all over Manhattan blurted, “Why are we talking about fiber? Wireless has the fastest speeds”: See my recent story “The Three Myths that Are Holding Back America’s Internet Access” Without fiber, wireless communications can’t go very far; Wi-Fi connections quickly offloaded onto fiber get to their destinations effectively; fiber is needed to backhaul our increasing floods of wireless data to inter-city networks.)
For cities, the existence of dark fiber networks — basic, passive infrastructure available on a neutral basis to any operator — could drive down retail access prices, make available reliable, world-class communications to every business and residence, and cause a steady stream of leasing revenue to flow into city coffers.
Of course, dark fiber isn’t free and requires substantial advance planning. But cities that have understood that the benefits of dark fiber far exceed the costs of installation are already reaping the rewards of their decision.
In Stockholm, city fathers twenty years ago wanted to avoid being under the thumb of either their local cable company or their local telco, so they created a neutral owner (Stokab) for a new dark fiber network that they planned and built over time.
Today, twenty years after its launch, more than 90 percent of residences and 100 percent of businesses in Stockholm have fiber access, and research institute Acreo Swedish ICT asserts that the dark fiber network has created a large profit for Sweden in the form of more jobs, higher property values, and lower high-speed Internet access charges. The City of Stockholm is now making tens of millions leasing access to its dark fiber network. In 2008, DSL over copper wires was the leading Internet access medium in Sweden; today, fiber is, showing that demand is high when the price is right. <I have emailed graphic to Sandra>
Palo Alto; Rockport, Maine; and Ammon, Idaho, all have dark fiber in place serving businesses. Ammon, a deeply conservative city of 14,000 adjacent to Idaho Falls, started by figuring out that it could save money by building its own fiber between its municipal buildings (rather than paying private providers for that same service). Then the Ammon water department and its Parks and Recreation department said they could use fiber to monitor wells, city pools, and irrigation sites; the departments agreed to share the cost of installation of city fiber in exchange for free connectivity. Then the city decided it wanted to open up the network’s excess capacity for the community, because, as Bruce Patterson, Ammon’s Technology Director, told the Institute for Local Self- Reliance: “Really, they own it.”
Businesses in Ammon now have city-owned dark fiber to their premises, but the city itself doesn’t sell services. Patterson again: “We build the road, and we let anybody that wants to use them use them. So, the commercial enterprises on those roads might be FedEx, UPS, or the U.S. Postal Service. We are not those entities. We are the entity that builds and maintains the roads. [W]e’re completely open.”
To be sure, there are no easy paths to municipal fiber, whether dark or lit. Existing companies—incumbents—with an interest in maintaining the status quo will always litigate. The small town of Lafayette, Louisiana went through years of fighting in connection with its fiber network.Now new employers are moving in to take advantage of the town’s connectivity. Cities need to be creative in building public-private partnerships, coordinating with regional consortia, and working with incumbents willing to play by the city’s rules. There are paths forward that involve partial city cost; it’s not all-or-nothing. (Of course, local leaders have to be unimpaired by state laws raising barriers to local choices about fiber—about 20 states already have such laws on the books that need to be struck down, and the FCC is looking into its powers to block such laws. Their effort should be bolstered by President Obama’s strong recent announcements on the subject.)
Tree canopies and street grids are the proper subjects of government attention. So are highways and bridges. Fiber networks are also basic infrastructure, and dark fiber — in particular — should have wide bipartisan appeal. The bright future of dark fiber is just ahead.
Cover image courtesy of Alana Gordon / Flickr.