Mike Harris: Investing in open access fiber is investing in the future: Broadband Breakfast


In the United States, most ISPs are private companies that have set up copper network infrastructure exclusively for their own use, forcing customers to enter into often unreliable and unsustainable internet package deals. But in 2010, the small town of Chattanooga, Tennessee invested in its first state-owned fiber optic network.

As co-founder of free access telecommunications company SiFi Networks, I believe that investments in similar open access infrastructure will help bridge community gaps and sustain a city’s economic and social prosperity.

According to a study by Bento Lobo, head of the Department of Finance and Economics at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga Municipal Broadband generated more than $ 2.69 billion in social and economic benefits in its first decade. With a population of just 185,000, imagine the potential savings for a city the size of New York.

So how did Chattanooga achieve this and what were the city’s motives?

Motives behind the madness

In 1969, Chattanooga was dubbed America’s dirtiest city. A post-industrial wasteland, it entered the late 20th century with a stagnant economy, a declining population and high unemployment rates following the closure of its large manufacturing plants. It’s no surprise that decades later, utility company EPB chose to invest in the future of its residents.

EPB began replacing underground copper cabling – initially created to handle phone calls exclusively – with fiber optic cables providing connectivity to the entire community. Fiber optic networks are vastly superior to copper in that they can carry data using photons traveling at the speed of light. The previous infrastructure uses electrons capable of less than one percent of this speed.

Where before Chattanooga was seen as an underdeveloped, low-income area, businesses suddenly moved in, employment grew, and more teens graduated from high school. Is it time for other cities to follow suit?

Why other cities should follow suit

Internet connectivity is a human right just like water, electricity and gas utilities. Yet 21 million US citizens still live without reliable broadband according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Research also shows that 40 percent of schools and 60 percent of healthcare facilities outside of metropolitan areas lack internet download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. This is the acceptable speed defining a reliable broadband connection.

As the Chattanooga model shows, the solution is to put in place a fiber optic infrastructure. With fiber networks, EPB offers residents and businesses gigabit speeds of up to 1000 Mbps, or 1 Gigabit per second. Looking back, with this capacity, Hamilton County was well equipped to cope with the 75 percent increase in the total amount of bandwidth used per day during the pandemic, with residents forced to work and educate themselves. from their home.

These gigabit speeds also allow a high degree of network responsiveness needed to establish a smart grid system. Most US cities use standard network systems, which rely on consumers notifying a service in the event of a power outage or system failure.

Smart grids establish a two-way communication network using digital devices and automation so that service providers are notified immediately if something goes wrong. According to the Lobo study, EPB’s Hamilton County Smart Grid, for example, can quickly reroute electricity around storm damage, reducing outages by 40% in minutes. He estimates that Chattanooga consumers will save $ 20.6 million per year simply by avoiding deterioration and lost productivity due to power outages.

Save money, save livelihood

EPB has more than proven that fiber optic networks are a socio-economic investment that benefits everyone, not just those fortunate enough to live in a fiber optic area. Better and faster connectivity will allow businesses in all neighborhoods to thrive, creating employment opportunities. During the ‘decade of concerts’ (2011-2020), EPB’s fiber optic network directly supported the creation or maintenance of approximately 9,500 jobs in Hamilton County, attracting the migration of global companies. like Volkswagen. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics took this into account, saying Hamilton County’s unemployment rate was 4.7% in November 2020, compared to the overall US percentage of 6.7.

Chattanooga at night

The benefits don’t end there. A study by the Prime Minister of South Australia, Jay weatherill, correlated gigabit networks with improved support for police-fire communications, wastewater management, traffic control, and medical diagnostics. These are all hallmarks of FiberCity from SiFi Networks and if Chattanooga has shown anything, it is that fiber networks primarily improve the quality of life for residents.

FiberCity – the next step?

Chattanooga has demonstrated the importance of staying connected. To that end, becoming a SiFi Networks FiberCity could be the next step for cities in the United States.

Privately funded networks, like that of SiFi Networks, are often the best option to secure the funding needed to build, maintain and expand fiber infrastructure. Municipalities would not have to depend on taxpayer money, which could instead be diverted to health care, education and other social entities. During a period of continuous technological evolution, FiberCities has one simple mission: to combine the benefits of Chattanooga’s gigabit speeds with future-proof smart city services across the United States.

Mike Harris is a successful entrepreneur and technologist, having previously founded Total Network Solutions Ltd in 1989, which he then sold to UK telecommunications giant British Telecom in 2005. He then co-founded SiFi Networks and is currently an investor in the society. He is also president and owner of New Saints Football Club in Wales, UK. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts comments from observers of the broadband scene. Please send articles to [email protected] The opinions expressed in expert opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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