Some cities are going their own way to close the last-mile broadband gap

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As early as 2012, broadband infrastructure was part of the master planning process for Gilbert, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix with a population of approximately 270,000. Fiber provided reliable and fast connectivity for city operations, including emergency services such as fire and police. Now, Gilbert officials are working to provide broadband access to residents and businesses to expand options and make the city a more attractive place to live and work.

“Over the years we’ve had calls from businesses, and they want to see more options and more redundancy,” said Nikki McCarty, assistant to the city manager. “We also try to serve our residents and are working to provide more options and better service in Gilbert.”

McCarty notes that Gilbert is not an “unserved community”. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, 98.5% of households in Gilbert have a computer and 95.8% have an Internet subscription. For Gilbert, the effort is a way to ensure that residents and businesses always have an option that offers great customer service and fast speeds. The city also has several other infrastructure projects coming up, and the new fiber is one way to add value. However, for many communities, municipal broadband initiatives are a response to the lack of access from existing providers.

“Municipalities across the country have begun to see their communities being left behind,” says Gary Bolton, President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association. “Everyone knows that broadband has gone from something for entertainment to something essential. I haven’t yet met a mayor who says, “I want to work in broadband”, but every one of them says, “I need jobs”. Fiber infrastructure not only provides jobs and economic development, but it also enables remote working, online schooling and remote healthcare – and paves the way for future services like 5G.

It is then up to cities to close the last mile, that remaining distance between telecommunications networks and the homes of their citizens.

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Cities focus on building better broadband

Gilbert relies heavily on its partnership with Cisco to power its broadband efforts, using Cisco routers, switches and firewalls. The city is inviting requests for proposals for the new fiber, and officials hope to begin making fiber connections to homes and businesses by 2023. Several research organizations have voted Gilbert the top U.S. city for remote workers, thanks to its adoption of hybrid offices and competitive salaries. for workers based out of the office.

Wilson, North Carolina has supported municipal broadband since 2008. Its Greenlight fiber-to-the-home network provides high-speed, reliable and affordable Internet connectivity. The city initially pursued the effort because officials could not persuade existing providers to expand their offerings to adequately support city services.

“One of our early realizations was that we simply didn’t have the network infrastructure available in the community that was sufficient for our own operations,” says Will Aycock, CEO of Greenlight. “I had to move from office to office with data discs. As we embarked on a project to install our own infrastructure, some of the major employers and institutions in the community began asking how they could access this fiber network.

53%

The share of residents who said internet connection issues would cause a “total disruption” in their home

Source: alex.gilbertaz.gov, “Community Feedback: Internet Services“, January 18, 2022

Greenlight uses Cisco infrastructure at its core and Fortinet and Barracuda equipment for network security. The service offers three connection speeds, ranging from 50 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, and has a 45% market share in the city.

RELATED: How does North Carolina plan to bridge the digital divide?

Fairlawn, Ohio launches municipal broadband to help community

In the town of Fairlawn, Ohio, which has a population of 7,500, officials pleaded with area internet service providers to improve their service, but to no avail.

“We were hearing from companies saying they were actually changing shifts,” says Ernie Staten, the city’s assistant utility manager. “During the lunch period, they couldn’t even work in their offices, the connections were so bad. We sat down with the incumbent telcos and told them we would help pay for the upgrades, but they weren’t interested. They said our businesses and our residents don’t need this.

Fairlawn officials took matters into their own hands, launching the FairlawnGig network in 2017 and committing $10 million to the 10-year effort. Officials initially hoped that 35% of residents would adopt the network, which was built with Juniper equipment. The city far exceeded this target, with 62% of Fairlawn addresses signing up for the services, despite there being three top incumbents in the city.

“In government, if you get a 35% turnout in any program, that’s a win,” Staten says. “We surpassed that benchmark in no time.”

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A Changing Mindset About Broadband Access

Several states still have laws limiting the ability of municipalities to offer broadband services. In fact, Greenlight had to stop serving a nearby town. Overall, however, developers see a shift in thinking about municipal broadband. Rather than seeing it as optional equipment, they say, many have come to view broadband internet connectivity as an essential utility, akin to water and electricity.

“It’s really the new infrastructure,” Staten says. “It has to be placed up there with roads and bridges and everything else.”

In Gilbert, having a fiber optic network to support city services has helped public employees switch to remote work “at any time,” says Eugene Mejia, the city’s deputy technical director. “Within 48 hours, we sent the majority of our workforce home. Because we had been very thoughtful in the investments we made, we were able to pivot very quickly and adapt to remote working. There were very few problems. »

Aycock says there has recently been a “tremendous shift” in thinking about public broadband. “The pandemic has accelerated that, with people realizing there are huge parts of public life that you can’t participate in if you don’t have broadband at home,” he says.

DIVE DEEPER: How can state CIOs encourage broadband expansion?

Photograph by Steve Craft

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