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Fiber optic broadband for all? A Special Report

Savannah-Chatham considers municipal network for high-speed internet, but can it become reality?

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Seimitsu’s Sam Cook and Ron Wallace explain the physics of fiber optics and how the Cloud is not actually a cloud. *mind blown*
  • Seimitsu’s Sam Cook and Ron Wallace explain the physics of fiber optics and how the Cloud is not actually a cloud. *mind blown*

AS A wide-eyed nerd raised on William Gibson’s seminal 1984 sci-fi novel Neuromancer, I was pretty sure we'd be able to download information straight to our brains at the speed of light by now.

Instead, I’ve been staring at a spiraling icon for what seems like an eternity while waiting for an ad-heavy news website to load. Good thing no one else is home; otherwise this might take all day.

Sometimes, when I’m working and my husband decides to stream the Tottenham game while our daughter logs into Google classroom as our son Snapchats himself into a stupor, one of us—for real—has to go unplug the microwave. If that doesn’t speed things up, we have to reset the router.

Inevitably, this exacerbates a tantrum from somebody, and we all have to spend a few minutes arguing about whose wi-fi needs are the highest priority and whether the microwave thing is just a myth and why can’t you just read a damn book?

The future is here, and it ain’t nearly as fast as fiction.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld net neutrality laws and classified broadband as an essential utility that should be available to all Americans, like electricity and water. Nearly 90 percent of Americans already use the Internet at home or work, but not all connection points are created equally. Many Internet Service Providers (ISP), including cable, DSL and cellular networks, offer a varied scale of service using a patchwork of towers, telephone poles and buried cable.

The Federal Communications Commission’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report shows that ten percent of the country—a whopping 39 percent in rural areas—still doesn’t have access to the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps ratio (25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload) defined as “hi-speed broadband,” and 41 percent of public schools lack the connectivity to meet the FCC’s benchmark of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff.

It doesn’t take a tech genius to understand that broadband is tied to economic growth as companies large and small process an ever-increasing bulk of transactions online, but slow Internet has its social implications, too. Low-income households are five times less likely to have access to hi-speed broadband than affluent ones, cutting off online job options and adding the “digital divide” to the list of barriers that trap citizens in poverty.

Telecommuting, gaming and online-only homework have only exponentially increased demand for blazingly fast broadband, and ISPs have been slow to address customer dissatisfaction. Lack of competition—and outright monopolies—in some markets elicits widespread kvetching about price gouging and restricted networks in less affluent communities.

Local ISP and network provider Seitmitsu has already established more than 36 miles of fiber throughout the City of Savannah. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SEIMITSU
  • Photo courtesy of Seimitsu
  • Local ISP and network provider Seitmitsu has already established more than 36 miles of fiber throughout the City of Savannah.

Locally, people were so fed up with Comcast’s notoriously spotty service that they demanded a series of public hearings in 2012, and well, you already heard my microwave story. (I’ve stubbornly kept DSL from AT&T because, Comcast.)

But it’s not just us regular folk who are having Internet issues. Local hospitals, universities and big’uns like the Georgia Port Authority, SEDA’s Film Office and Georgia Power require huge platforms to send data back and forth and run the risk of hampered operations with the existing infrastructure. Savannah Chatham Metro Police Department has been at least partially limited in accommodating the public demand for downtown security cameras by a lack of bandwidth.

Last month, The City of Savannah and Chatham County launched the Broadband Fiber-Optic Feasibility Study to see what we might do about getting ourselves up to speed.

Tech-ready infrastructure is essential for the future, and local leaders would really like to tap into the phenomenal economic and civic success that other small Southern cities—namely, Chattanooga, TN—have achieved by developing a grid of publicly-owned fiber optic cables to deliver Internet service so fast it’ll leave skid marks on your mouse hand.

The study comes at the behest of the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, a think tank and data crunching non-profit that identified the need for hi-speed broadband as a priority of its crowd-sourced Chatham Community Blueprint. The key purpose is to identify current wireless services and whether they are serving Savannah’s business sector and community institutions like schools and hospitals.

But it’s also about residential equality: Do all neighborhoods have access to the same bandwidth?

“We’re trying to establish what’s out there so that we can see if there needs to be policy or system changes,” says CGIC director Tara Jennings. “What can we do that is not just sustainable but expandable? We don’t want just a Band-Aid. How are we going to ever to move people out of poverty without connecting them to healthcare, education and community?”

The first part of the study is a survey hosted on the City of Savannah website that invites the input of all Chatham County residents and businesses.

The survey takes into account your satisfaction and complaints, but it also collects hard data: You’ll get to take a speed test from whatever Internet source you’re hooked into at the moment, so make sure it’s the right one.

“If you’re having trouble at with your internet at home at 7:30 at night, don’t take the survey at work at 2:30 in the afternoon,” warns Jennings.

The survey is open through November 30, and recommendations will be delivered in late January.

No council or commission around here makes any decisions without an expensive private consultant, and both entities have enlisted Magellan Advisors to help determine how and if a fiber optic network could provide speedy delivery downtown as well as to the far reaches of Wilmington Island and the forgotten areas of District 5.

While the survey is a joint effort, a Magellan representative confirmed the city study and the county study are being conducted and paid for separately, at about $65,000 each. (You read that right—the county and the most populous city inside the county are using tax dollars for two different broadband studies. Maybe a merger isn’t such a bad idea after all?)

At least they know who to hire: Magellan has led more than 200 cities into a smart-grid reality, including Chattanooga, where every house and business, urban or rural, can tap into affordable broadband at 1 gigabit per second—almost 50 times the FCC’s definition of high-speed.

“The Gig,” as it’s affectionately called, has rocketed Chattanooga into the tech boom stratosphere, attracting manufacturing jobs and cultivating a thriving start-up scene. By adding 600 square miles of fiber optic cable along its already-existing power lines in 2009, the city upgraded its public utility system into one of the most efficient—and profitable—in the world.

Between 2011 and 2015, the city has seen as much as $1.3 billion in revenue and 5,200 new jobs, according to a report conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Dept. of Finance.

Medical researchers are using the Gig to build 3-D models for brain surgeons, and STEM students examine microorganisms under a microscope located at the University of Southern California in real time.

Rumor has it you can download all the HD Marvel movies in under two minutes.

“It’s amazing what can happen when bandwidth isn’t a constraint,” says Danna Bailey, the Gig’s director of corporate communications. “People are still really excited.”

Could we enjoy such a taxpayer-funded, glitch-free, no-buffer zone throughout Savannah? Maybe.

The idea has been lobbed around for years, most recently by tech guru and Creative Coast founder Chris Miller, who approached the city with his Savannah Community Open Access Broadband Alliance initiative last year that would have initially served Broughton Street and expanded outward.

The city passed it over without a glance, saying that there needed to be more community investment, though the co-op could have gotten off the ground for around the same amount of money the City and County are paying Magellan.

The main factor that made Chattanooga’s network so easy to implement is that the city already owned the infrastructure, from the utility poles and the labor to the software and customer accounts. Building that from scratch is formidable—and expensive.

When EPB, Chattanooga’s public electric utility, decided to replace old wiring with fiber optic cable to address its longstanding power outage problems, the city floated a $170 million public bond to pay for it, which was buoyed by $111 million in federal stimulus money after it was discovered it could deliver public Internet to already existing EPB customers.

“We knew all along we were going to upgrade, and we realized we could use the fiber for other community benefits,” continues Bailey. “It was easy enough to integrate the two structures.”

The city’s biggest private broadband provider, Comcast, was none too happy at having a government competitor doling out bandwidth faster and cheaper. The megacommunications monster sued the EPB in 2008 and lost, but it was successful in lobbying to prevent municipal-owned networks in other states.

Earlier this year, the FCC overruled laws that limit broadband access, and Chattanooga is currently working to expand the Gig to neighboring rural communities.

While potential 1 GB wonderlands in Savannah and other places are no longer inhibited by legalities, municipalities must still stare down the hurdle of infrastructure and maintenance. Marietta, GA and Provo, UT built their own networks but couldn’t afford to operate them, and Monticello, MN had to default on its own bond.

Patrick Gleason of Forbes magazine calls government-owned broadband “a bad deal for taxpayers.”

“The City of Savannah doesn’t need to own an electric utility to directly offer high-speed broadband to our residents and businesses, but it makes it so much more feasible,” explains the City of Savannah’s Bret Bell. “As a result, there are essentially no communities in America who are directly offering Chattanooga-style service that don’t own an electric utility.”

If a municipally-owned fiber network isn’t in the stars, the other option is to develop a public/private partnership that would bring on a corporate entity to install the grid and supply the connectivity at competitive rates while the local government ensures that it is available to everyone and doesn’t suck.

That’s essentially what Google Fiber has aimed to do in places like Huntsville, AL and Provo, where it bought up the existing network for a steal. But supplying fiber optic for all has proven a quixotic endeavor even for an overachiever like Google, and the project has been rolled back for eight of the project’s cities.

Building a whole new fiber optic network for Savannah-Chatham might not even be necessary at all.

There are 29 ISP options listed for the area, though most businesses and households employ the usual big name suspects, who want to keep their existing customers even if it means stepping up their service.

“AT&T has invested nearly $75 million dollars in the past three years alone in the area, enhancing our network and expanding our fiber optic footprint to connect businesses and residents through high-speed wired and wireless connections,” says an AT&T spokesman.

“We have also seen success in the public-private partnership approach to broadband and we look forward to the recommendations from the ongoing study and are confident that community leaders will continue to pursue policies that encourage private sector investment.”

Comcast already completed a 10GB fiber network for its corporate customers earlier this year, and 1GB residential service is on its way, assures VP of public relations Alex Horwitz.

“We’re making the investment because we know that businesses and families want to take their speed to the next level and have to have a more advanced platform,” says Horwitz.

“We want it to be ubiquitous across greater Savannah.”

That makes it sound like fiber optic isn’t already here, which isn’t the case. Fiber optics is essentially a real estate venture, and there’s a local player that has the capacity to give big boys a run for their money.

Seimitsu “Sam” Cook has been keeping up with the global Internet game for 32 years from his no-nonsense, self-titled offices on Bull Street and has been an ISP since AOL was still giving out floppy disks. He’s been hosting low-cost access to residents of Frazier and Kayton Homes along the already-existing fiber optic network along MLK Blvd., built by the city in 2010.

Cook has also invested his own money with additional funding from the Small Business Association Corporation to run 36 more miles of underground fiber throughout the city that could be readily adapted into a bigger network.

“I would love to partner with the city to fill in the gaps,” says Cook, holding up what looks like a tube of multicolored spaghetti.

The actual fibers themselves encased in these waterproof plastic shafts are no wider than a hair, and each one can be split up to 128 times.

“A few for the government, a few for residential and business, a few to sell. If we already have the infrastructure, why not share it?”

While other ISPs are experimenting with other technology, he maintains that fiber is by far the fastest, cheapest, most sustainable option for connectivity. While not exactly a series of tubes, the Internet does require physical equipment, and because fiber is rugged, waterproof and can be buried easily, it’s not as susceptible to service disruptions (unlike cable, *cough cough*).

“There really is no obsolescence with fiber,” he says. “It has far more bandwidth capacity than the copper wiring of cable and DSL. Everything is traveling basically at the speed of light.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about! But that doesn’t mean everyone’s equipment is prepared for universal access.

Sam explained that older wireless devices often lose their signals because they share the same 2.4 GHz frequency as certain appliances, which is why we have to unplug the microwave.

(Also in this crash course on how my computer actually works, Sam and colleague Ron Wallace revealed to me that the Cloud is not actually a cloud. Call me a semantic loyalist, but I thought my photo stream and emails and unfinished novels were all wrapped up in fluffy, nebulous entity orbiting the satellites, but NO. They’re just bits and bytes stored in a giant, boring room full of stacks and stacks of computers. The Matrix. Is. Real...)

As efficient and magically fast as fiber networks are, they are still expensive to build and maintain. If the goal is to equalize hi-speed Internet access, it might not be the answer for Savannah.

“Actually, the industry trend is moving away from fiber,” says Johnny Kampis, who writes about broadband for Watchdog.org.

Kampus describes emerging tech that utilizes wireless networks and cell towers and may end up being more accessible—and affordable—to rural and urban areas.

Beaming antennas, local loops and home hotspots are on the rise as companies race to fill the service gaps. Even Google Fiber is getting in on the wireless game, buying up the ISP Webpass to service high-density housing subscribers in San Francisco and Chicago.

“The technology is changing so quickly, areas that are unserved or underserved will likely be just fine in a few years,” he told me over the phone.

“In the future, data is going to cost a lot less anyway.”

He says such a diversified network is vital to accommodate the Internet of Things, the capacity of machines and devices to gather data and communicate with each other without human interaction.

Sounds like science fiction, but it’s already happening in the form of driverless cars, self-adjusting pacemakers and sensors that turn the porch light on when you’re on your way home. (Maybe I can get the stupid microwave to open the garage door?)

Hopefully, when Magellan delivers its recommendations for connecting every corner of Savannah and Chatham, officials will act with alacrity and implement whatever the plan is immediately.

The future is already here, and if we don’t get up to speed we’re going to miss it, whether we patch together our own grid or let the free market force the competitors to bring better service.

But I’m still holding out for a direct feed from the Cloud to my brain.

cs

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