Officials Ramp Up Rural Broadband
A Wyoming town plans to build a fiber optic network to spur
economic growth despite the objections of service providers.
Associated Press Writer
Los Angeles Times
Monday, August 14, 2006
POWELL, Wyo. — Hay and beans have fueled this rural economy
for years. But it's fiber of another kind that city leaders
believe is key to Powell's future.
Plans are underway to build a fiber optic network capable of
delivering ultrafast Internet, cable TV and telephone
service to virtually every household and business in this
community of about 5,300 people.
The goal of the $6-million project is to create another
selling point for a community where quality-of-life issues —
good schools and safe streets — are no longer enough of a
draw for businesses to come to a place where the nearest
major city — Billings, Mont. — is 100 miles away.
"As a city administrator, I hear the term 'economic
development' thrown around," said Zane Logan, the leading
voice behind CityNet, which is opposed by local phone
carrier Qwest Communications and cable provider Bresnan
Communications. "I can't think of anything more
economic-develop- ment-minded than a fiber optic network."
Powell is part of a growing phenomenon, fueled by
dissatisfaction in sparsely populated areas where the local
phone and cable providers are slower to invest in costly
network upgrades that may not be profitable.
At least 40 municipalities and public utility districts
around the nation already offer so-called fiber to the home,
according to market researcher Michael Render.
These fiber networks are more robust and costlier to build
than the municipal wireless networks proposed in hundreds of
cities, often sparking similar controversy.
The rise of community-backed projects has sparked debate
about whether it's proper for government to compete with
private enterprise and whether broadband technology is a
luxury or a virtual necessity that cities should provide as
they do water or garbage service.
"Is it a commodity where you pay for what you use and leave
it to the private sector? Or is it a utility, as important
to today's lifestyle as water and electricity?" asked John
Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign who has studied and written about the
"A lot of communities feel it's in their interest to step in
and offer it," he said.
That was the case in Windom, Minn. Before the city announced
plans to build its fiber network, Internet options were
limited to frustratingly slow dial-up or finding a wireless
hot spot 20 miles away, said Dan Olsen, operations manager
with WindomNet, the farming community's telecommunications
Now, more than a year after Windom built its nearly
$11-million network, Qwest also is in town offering
competitive high-speed Internet connections, he said. About
1,700 customers subscribe to at least one of the three city
services — Internet, phone or cable — and some take all
"If you're a small town out there and can't get a provider
to provide services, what do you do? Give up or get the
community involved?" Olsen asked. Windom's network isn't
profitable yet, though Olsen said it wasn't expected to be
so soon. "We've been constantly hooking up and growing and
There are challenges. According to Joe Savage, president of
the Fiber to the Home Council North America, up to 30% of
households in a given community must subscribe to a fiber
network for the system to begin making money. And it can be
hard for budget-strapped municipalities to secure funding,
requiring them to use tax money, borrow or partner with a
However, Render, the market researcher, knows of no
documented failures in what he considers a still-new
In Utah, the vitality of a network known as the UTOPIA
project depends on its potential to grow and attract new
customers, said Roger Black, the chief operating officer.
Just six of the 14 communities behind the project are being
served by the superfast service, he said.
The network must be built out for the others to be brought
on, and Black said finding a lender delayed expansion plans
by at least seven months. He expects construction can begin
Typically, a municipality will own the infrastructure needed
to run a fiber network, Render said. In some cases, a
community will run its own system with customers paying the
city directly. In other cases, a community essentially
leases network space to a service provider that handles
customer service and billing.
"There probably is some place in the country where it makes
sense for a community to endeavor to do such a thing because
there's a dearth of services there," said Jerold Lambert,
associate general counsel for Bresnan. "It is hardly
understandable or prudent for a community to do that where
there's already an extended marketplace thriving in their
Lambert also suggested there may be "legal implications"
related to the exclusive deal.
The city says both Qwest and Bresnan were invited to compete
for the contract to run the system or, alternatively, to cut
a deal to sell their own services over the new network.
Qwest and Bresnan each vow aggressive marketing in response
to the city's planned network. Logan said he expects the
Powell system "will be able to compete" for customers.
Construction of the network could begin this year if the
necessary investors are lined up. The city isn't committing
any money above the $125,000 it provided for a business
plan, Logan said, and he expects the city to be reimbursed
Still, Logan is feeling the pressure. He said he brought the
idea to build the network to the City Council late last
year, and he's aggressively promoted it as a vital
investment in Powell's future.
Potential customers seem interested. When businesses and
prospective new residents call Sharon Earhardt at the local
chamber of commerce, they often follow questions about
schools and housing with questions about the city's Internet
service: What does Powell have to offer? Is it fast?
Earhardt fills them in on the existing services and the
fiber optic plan. For people looking to relocate, she said,
"technology will be our ticket."