Ithaca-based ISP adopts open-access broadband network that will link Tioga County town


ITHACA, NY—Efforts in New York City to bridge the digital divide and bring high-speed internet to homes in rural areas across the state will see the town of Nichols, Tioga County, become a test case for building an open access fiber optic network that works directly to households and businesses.

Building an open-access network is a big step in a different direction from the approach that has dominated any expansion of broadband service in New York, or the country as a whole. This network would allow any Internet Service Provider (ISP) to operate and offer its services to customers in the City of Nichols. Previously, expanding access relied primarily on inducing large private companies to locate in sparse areas, own the networks they develop, and create monopolistic conditions in local and regional areas.

This open-access network should benefit small businesses, like an Ithaca-based Internet ISP trying to “reclaim the Internet.”

Fiberspark was incorporated into Ithaca in 2012, beginning as a class project for a group of Cornell undergraduates two of whom now remain: Jeff Shaffer as CEO and Tyler Dufault as the company’s business development manager. company. The phrase “reclaim the internet” appears on Fiberspark’s website and translates to the company’s stated mission to bring US internet speeds to par with other developed countries, such as South Korea, Sweden and Japan, explains Shaffer.

They are the first ISP to agree to serve the town of Nichols on the open-access network, dubbed Nichols Fiber, which is being built by the Southern Tier Network (STN) as one of the initiative’s four model projects. New York’s ConnectALL to expand high-speed Internet access across the state.

The project will mark STN’s first foray into “last mile fiber”, or routing fiber along sparsely populated residential roads. Prior to taking over Nichols Fiber, the organization focused on building “backbone” open access networks, linking large corporations, hospitals, universities and other large institutions.

The City of Nichols was previously working to develop high-speed internet for its residents, in conjunction with the Tioga County Legislature, and had a project that was ready to go when their search for grants was met by finding projects in lead by the ConnectALL initiative. across the state.

The initial investment for building a mile of fiber optic cable along the telephone polls, Shaffer said, is more than $30,000. The effort to maintain this infrastructure and provide customer service, however, is quite low, he added. This high upfront cost of meeting customers creates significant challenges for small businesses wishing to penetrate and compete with established ISPs.

The dilemma required the company to request deposits of $150 to $500 before building in pre-planned “districts” where it could provide internet service and guarantee a return on its investment.

But the open-access network being built in Nichols would remove that barrier for businesses and, in theory, benefit the fastest, most affordable, and most reliable service in that city’s market.

The business is small, with Shaffer and Dufault being the only employees. Fiberspark serves about 700 households in Ithaca, although they hope to more than double as they begin serving potentially 800 households through the open access network being built in the town of Nichols.

“We’re small enough to attempt something like this, but we have enough experience to be able to do it effectively,” Dufault said.

Fiberspark specializes in providing fiber optic internet, which enables them to offer up to 1000 Mbps for download and upload speeds. For reference, cable internet download speeds typically reach 100 Mbps on the high end, but are generally slower. Sadly worse are mobile satellite and/or 4G hotspots, which many in rural America will use for lack of a better option. They give download speeds of Mbps down to single digits.

Amy Fuhr, owner and operator of the William Henry Miller Inn, is a Fiberspark customer and rates her service as “fabulous”.

“[Spectrum] is so expensive, and it didn’t work very well. So I was happy to find someone to cross over to,” Fuhr said. “And that’s how I started using Fiberspark, and I’ve been trying to bring them to my house ever since.”

Esther Woods, Councilor for the Town of Nichols, has been a big supporter of expanding broadband access in Nichols. She herself moved from the village of Nichols where she had cable internet service, a few miles away in the town of Nichols to find that after buying her house, Spectrum did not service the area and would not do so at unless she pays around $10,000. for the company to run a line to his house.

“$10,000 is just unrealistic. These companies are really leaving people behind,” Woods said.

While awaiting the results of this project, STN CEO Jeffrey Gasper said Nichols’ network could potentially be replicated in other areas of the organization’s fiber network. “We can do what we do at Nichols just about anywhere on our existing footprint. Because now we have a template that we can kind of copy-paste and do somewhere else.

Once this network was built, Fiberspark would only have to run the fiber optic cable from the telephone polls to its customers.

Woods said she would like to see more ISPs come into the town of Nichols and embrace the level playing field created by the open access network, and Fiberspark, in a way, seems to feel the same way.

“We’ve been fighting with Spectrum in Ithaca for years already,” Shaffer said. “We know how to beat them on every aspect anyone could want in an internet service. So no matter who else would come to an open access network, we welcome that competition.”


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