By Bill Harp
Have you followed what’s happening in local telecommunications? If not, here are some facts: Broadband fiber optic cable and associated internet services are the single most important factor for technological economic development besides, say, quality of life, affordable housing, a cool lake and perhaps low electrical rates. Internet service alone is the single most important resource for a host of businesses from banking to warehousing. Even traditional retail companies require huge amounts of bandwidth. A Walmart store consumes enough bandwidth to power a town. In a connected world, it is fiber optic cable that provides the underlying network, and fiber has done so for decades.
Our elected officials, in both the county and city, have transformative fiber initiatives in motion that will ensure a plethora of connectivity options for business, agencies, NGOs and citizens. This means schools and libraries too. For technology businesses, it is not just enough to just have “connectivity options.” These options must be robust, dependable, redundant, priced well and easy to acquire and use. Rural cities, like Sandpoint and the surrounding areas, are often left out of this digital revolutions and are stuck with expensive and unreliable options. That is going to change!
Years ago, the county and city governments recognized that there were not sufficient telecommunication options to power their existing and future requirements. Appeals to the telecommunication providers did not deliver acceptable results. So, they started on a path of building their own fiber networks. Call it the “last tactical mile.” This is not that unusual as many local governments are successfully building, owning and operating their own telecommunications infrastructure. In Sandpoint’s case, the county needed to connect their administrative offices on Highway 2 to the sheriff and 911 complex on North Boyer. Also, the county needed connectivity to the Courthouse, to Frontier for 9-1-1 and access to wholesale internet services near the railroad station. The county runs the bandwidth intensive 911 Center and the public safety network that serves the entire county. They knew that the next generation of 911 would be very bandwidth-intensive, and fiber would be the only reasonable route.
The city, on the other hand, had wisely built has some existing fiber conduit during downtown road improvements. They recognized, early in the game, that they could deploy a fiber network in key areas of downtown Sandpoint that would connect county and city facilities alike. At the same time, the city recognized it could foment the next wave of economic development. So, the city rolled up its sleeves and built a large bandwidth fiber optic network in downtown Sandpoint. And the county just recently approved a contract to build a very large bandwidth, 144-count fiber cable this spring. It will run from the administration building to the sheriff complex and supply enough bandwidth for many years to come. This is all ah… ah… may I say “huge?” Furthermore, the city and county agreed to permit transport on each other’s network. This is documented in a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that can be found at https://sandpointidaho.gov/Home/ShowDocument?id=5855. By the way, all this fiber infrastructure lasts over 20 years since it is buried, low maintenance and secure.
The county is just trying to connect its facilities, but its project also provided the city, per the MoU, with an empty fiber conduit to deploy city-owned fiber for economic development purposes. Many companies could deploy their own fiber in such a conduit or alternately the city could deploy fiber and lease it. Once the conduit is in the ground, slipping in fiber is very low-impact and easy. The city network is now open for business with respect to supporting economic development. It now has massive bandwidth in the existing city fiber network, and with the county’s new empty conduit and fiber cable under construction, this triples the city’s geographic reach. This will create a buzz of business interest anywhere near these fiber paths, like the airport and all the commercial operations around it. The city has additional phases of fiber deployment to extend their existing currently operational fiber network to additional Sandpoint areas.
The ultimate winner is going to be everyone locally who uses telecommunications. I am sure that many of us, especially those of us who live out of town, hope that this connectivity wave will creep beyond the city boundaries into the bandwidth impoverished hinterlands. Ponderay, wisely looking for ways to join the revolution, placed empty conduit in some of their recent utility construction runs. These potential conduits for network paths in Ponderay could expand the city and county fiber runs and create a greater Sandpoint fiber optic ring. This is critically important because if part of the network is bisected by a backhoe, a reasonable possibility in northern Idaho, the other side of the ring can carry the digital traffic.
Oh, and by the way, note that the county and city are collaborating to broker the mutual benefits of their resources by sharing access to their networks with one another. Working together to enable economic opportunities for all citizens—that is a strategy that has my vote. This has all been a dream of many organizations in town for years including the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation.
So, what is specifically happening? First off, the city approved the MoU with the county in February. Second, the city established very competitive pricing for leasing one or more existing or future fiber strands an attractive prospect for many businesses, not just for internet services. Third, the city approved competitive lease rates for empty fiber conduits for any company that might want to deploy their own fiber.
Collectively, these actions transformed our infrastructure from almost nothing to a highly capable and functioning network within a few months. These measures were passed by a unanimous vote in the City Council. The council apparently all share the potential positive value of the fiber vision.
Businesses are already lining up to supply service in this now-favorable and dynamic connectivity landscape. Ting is setting up shop in Sandpoint, as you may have noticed with their on-going flurry of marketing. And Fatbeam and Intermax, two regional telecommunication companies, have also shown keen interest in coming to town and others are taking notes.
Ting is leasing some city lands near City Hall for a network operations center approved by the council. Ting also announced it will deploy basically everything you might want: gigabit Internet connections, Amazon Fire TV Stick, DVR and multiscreen support, high definition at no extra cost and video on demand later in the deployment, all very favorably priced. The neighborhoods with the highest pre-order demand will be the first deployed.
It’s time to watch telecommunication capitalism blossom in Sandpoint. Network connections and Internet services are some of the most important resources that our schools and jobs need. If we want to keep our young adults in the neighborhood, we must take aggressive steps to create the jobs that pay more than near minimum wage. Attracting technology companies can, in part, provide that. It would be a shame to see Bonner County become a place for richer, older folks in or nearing retirement as current statistics indicate. That is just downright sad and unnecessary. However, we have already seen telecom suppliers dropping their bandwidth pricing by a whole new magnitude of lower pricing. And that is just the beginning.
So, what does this mean to you? By the looks of it, this year, Sandpoint—or at least certain areas of Sandpoint—will have Ting options, including gigabit internet services for under $100. That will be huge. And Ting will have more moderately priced options and business packages too. Note that a gigabit (Gb) is approximately 1,000 megabits (Mb). To provide you with a comparison of the significance of this transformation, most of the county facilities operate with a single 50 Mb of internet connectivity, and it currently costs the County far more than Ting’s gigabit package. So, the local digital telecom revolution is on; long live the revolution!
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