By providing the fiber infrastructure and then letting internet service providers compete to connect homes and businesses, the network strategy can drive down prices and boost services, advocates say.
SiFi Networks’ announcement it would partner with Odessa, Texas, to provide an open access internet network was its latest promise to connect tens of thousands of people and businesses.
Odessa joined the more than 30 communities in nine states that signed up to be one of the company’s Fiber Cities. SiFi’s citywide fiber networks will run by every home and business and allow multiple internet service providers to lease connections to the network, which the company says improves competition and choice for consumers. An analysis of the total units the company hopes to deliver nationwide found it would ultimately serve around 1.5 million residential and business customers.
And there are few signs of those expansion efforts slowing down. In an interview with internet grant portal Broadband.Money in January, SiFi CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson outlined the company’s commitment to spend $2 billion to build fiber networks across 30 cities by the end of this year, something he described at the time as “ambitious but achievable,” although that timeline has since slipped. The company is primarily funded by the Dutch pension fund APG and has also raised money from the Patrizia Smart City Infrastructure Fund.
The use of open access internet networks to help close the country’s digital divide has excited many groups who see them as a viable connection strategy for communities where there is little fiber or competition between ISPs, or where one incumbent provider dominates, as is the case in many cities.
“That traditional model only serves you well if you're in the maybe 50 to 100 metropolitan areas across the country,” said Francella Ochillo, executive director of broadband advocacy group Next Century Cities. “What happens to the other, all the hundreds of municipalities, that essentially are trying to figure this out? I think we're going to have to come up with different models to accommodate them, and open access networks just happens to be one at the buffet. But it's a really good option.”
There are already some examples of successful open access networks in the United States, albeit driven by the local governments themselves. Researchers at the nonprofit New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute found that Ammon, Idaho’s municipally operated open access network has made the city “one of the most affordable broadband markets in the country,” as its network has encouraged ISPs to compete for residents’ business with lower prices and faster speeds.
And while Google Fiber had to scale back its ambitious plans to expand its fiber network, its launch 10 years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, encouraged city leaders there to deal with long-standing inequities in local internet offerings.
One reason some look favorably upon open access networks is that they encourage competition between ISPs, which must compete with one another on the same infrastructure for the same customers. By encouraging that competition on a common network rather than having ISPs build their own infrastructure like the large incumbents do, communities can push companies to provide better speeds and services for their customers, or risk losing their business.
“If you're controlling the actual pipes of it, then you're able to either set standards around speed, uptime, availability, those types of things,” said Brian Donoghue, Next Century Cities’ deputy director. “The benefit of open access is that when there are providers that are providing a subpar service … it makes it very easy [for customers] to switch from one of the providers to the other.”
If telecommunications companies and ISPs do not have to focus on building their own infrastructure, said Shawn Parker, SiFi Networks’ vice president of government affairs,they can “do what they do best,” which is to focus more on the “customer experience.”
Harold Feld, senior vice president at open internet nonprofit Public Knowledge, said the act of building infrastructure for open access networks creates interest among smaller providers, as it acts as an anchor for them to build around.
“It's like shopping malls in the 1970s and 1980s,” Feld said. “They built out the shared infrastructure, but they made sure they have a Sears … a movie theater and a big retailer and a big clothing line as the anchor customers, and then local businesses filled in the rest.”
For broadband, that model is complicated by a regulatory environment that favors the incumbent providers or “facilities-based competition” that encourages the big companies to build their own infrastructure, Feld said. Open access and other internet networks may even be barred under state law.
Parker said SiFi currently has eight cities in “various stages of development,” while residents in the rest can register their interest in a future open access network promised by the company. Fullerton, California, is one of the furthest along in construction and deployment, although SiFi’s fiber installation work has been the subject of some local criticism.
And as many cities are unfamiliar with the concept of an open access network or the installation method of microtrenching — digging a narrow, relatively shallow trench where the necessary fiber infrastructure is buried — Parker said SiFi has been required to do “more hand holding” with local leaders.
“They're so conditioned to the current standards that are out there where you have usually one telco and you have one cable company and maybe you got some wireless plays around there,” he said. “Having one network supplying [cable] for everyone and having all providers having access to that is really a new concept here in the States.”
Donoghue said it is incumbent on those in charge of open access networks to have specific “guardrails” in place to protect the community.
Now that the “market has matured,” Feld said he expects to see growth in the number of open access networks, especially as all many people want is “a good cheap pipe” that connects them to the internet.