Town's Public Network Opens the Access Door


In 1960, the small town of Cheney, Wash., could only watch as the new Interstate 90 highway missed it by six miles, cutting it off from a valuable economic development lifeline.

In 2003, the town is determined not to miss out on the information superhighway, so it is building its own $6 million fiber-to-the premises telecommunications network. But unlike other municipal overbuild projects, Cheney's competitive communications service may not draw the ire of local cable operators and telcos.

That's because Cheney has taken a page from the public highway philosophy — the town will own the network, but open the pipe up to multiple voice, video or data providers.

"All we are going to do is provide a public highway, and it will still be private vehicles running on that highway," said Cheney city administrator Paul Schmidt. "We will have the headend here in our facilities, where those that want to provide the Internet service or telephony or video can come and bid on that, and they can run over our fiber system."

Located 17 miles southwest of Spokane, Cheney's population of 9,300 residents is clustered in a compact, 3.5-mile area that lends itself well to a high-capacity fiber-optic network, Schmidt said. The town is also home to the 8,900 students at Eastern Washington University.

The Gigabit Ethernet passive optical network being built by Alloptic Inc. will deliver a symmetric 1 Gigabit per second to each subscriber. The PON design also will cost the city less to run than traditional fiber grids, with no amplifiers or other electricity-chewing devices sitting between the main hub and the subscriber.

"That's another really positive thing for passive optical networks in general, in that providers no longer have to worry about getting power and maintenance crews out to sites that are way out in the field somewhere," said Alloptic marketing manager Greg Calton.

The first phase of the project, set to light up later this month, will create the fiber optic backbone for municipal communications and automated meter reading for the city-owned electric utility. Phase two, which may begin later this spring, will extend the fiber network to Cheney's residential and commercial areas.

Filling the pipe

Although the public network has not yet been constructed, the city is already talking to cable companies, Internet-service providers and telcos about filling the pipe.

Interested operators will have to apply to the city. If approved, they would pay a modest fee for access to the network.

Cheney is hoping that open-access strategy will supply its residents more choice in voice, video and data services, while providing revenue to the city to support network operations.

"That's what's held everything back in these rural areas … there is no one building the final mile," Schmidt said.

"But if you are going to build the final mile, don't build it with a monopoly like you currently have with telephony. Open it up to those that can provide the for the best cost and go from there."

Different approaches

Creating a multiple service operator network does require different technical thinking, according to Dana Bisaro, CEO of the city's communications engineering consultant, Zero dB.

For example, Zero dB opted for an Internet-protocol softswitch that can be partitioned, offering several voice providers ports on the unit at a much lower cost than if each had to buy a switch.

It also means installing a fiber optic line between Cheney and a data center in Spokane to better lure regional and national providers. That link, combined with a city-built headend facility, could be particularly attractive to other cable operators, Bisaro said.

In Spokane, Comcast Corp. is the resident MSO, having inherited a system formerly run by AT&T Broadband.

"They eliminate all of the cost of maintaining the cable and so forth," Bisaro said.

Cable operators have traditionally clung to the idea of owning the network themselves. But given the cost savings Cheney's system would offer, "it makes sense for them to use it," Bisaro said. "Whether or not their pride will let them do that or not is a whole other story."

Funding timetable

Even so, the biggest question mark for the Cheney project isn't whether it will attract providers, but rather when and how much of the network can be completed. Unlike other communities, Cheney opted not to pay for the project with voter-approved municipal bonds.

Instead, the locality paid for the first phase with revenue from its electrical utility and is now looking for grants and federal loans to complete the residential portion.

"Or we will keep funding it as we go from our utility funds," Schmidt said. "We're looking at about a $12 to $14 million build-out, and it's not going to happen all at once."