Ammon keeps on blazing new trails with city-owned fiber optic

Teya Vitu//August 16, 2018

Ammon keeps on blazing new trails with city-owned fiber optic

Teya Vitu//August 16, 2018

Ammon is hooking up homes to its city-owned fiber optic cable. Photo by Teya Vitu.

Ammon has installed its city-owned fiber optic system in the first 300 homes in this eastern Idaho city.

Since 2011, Ammon has brought municipal fiber optic cable to nearly all city facilities. City-owned fiber optic also serves dozens of businesses and the Bonneville Joint School District, which is connected with Ammon’s fiber at the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Department.

Ammon a few years back gained wide acclaim for a demonstration of how its open-source fiber optic system gives the sheriff’s office instant access to school security video systems.

Ammon, population 15,540, is considered a national leader in municipal fiber optic systems, even drawing a June visit from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Pai tweeted about the “city’s unique model for deploying & operating dark fiber infrastructure & delivering high-speed internet to fast-growing town near Idaho Falls.”

Ammon has been anticipating spreading city-owned fiber optic city-wide for years but only started the first residential installations in December 2016. The city hopes to have 500 homes hooked up by the end of the year, said Bruce Patterson, the city’s technology director.

“We learned a lot in the first year how hard it is,” Patterson said. “You have some people who really want fiber and work with us. Some are not interested in fiber but we have to cross their ground. We have a society of extremes. There’s a natural tension.”

Ammon is pioneering a local improvement district concept where homeowners are “buying” the fiber optic connection from the city’s mainline to their home. Brigham City, Utah, appears to be the only city to use a Local Improvement District, or LID, for fiber optic installation before Ammon, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

Mitchell believes Ammon is the only city with an open-source and automated system that enables homeowners to change Internet service providers through the city’s website.

Mitchell lauded Ammon in 2016 for having the most advanced fiber optic technology among U.S. cities.

“Other cities look at them as a model,” Mitchell said recently. “No one else has implemented open access yet. It’s not something you can do overnight. In a year, I’d say five or 10 more cities will be moving down that route.”

The city is not an internet service provider. The city simply is providing the fiber optic system for ISPs to lease space on. Ammon so far has three ISPs on board – but not CenturyLink or Cable One, as neither has the capability to alter their large-scale systems to integrate with Ammon’s, Patterson said.

“While we are not integrating our systems with Ammon’s city-owned network today, we will continue to evaluate future expansion opportunities in the area,” CenturyLink spokeswoman Kerry Zimmer said in a prepared statement.

Fiber optic as utility

Nearly a decade ago, Patterson grew frustrated with the poor internet connection in city facilities and what he called an “ongoing maintenance nightmare.” Ammon since 2003 had made many infrastructure improvements, including a new sewer treatment plant, a water holding tank, a public works building and improved main water lines. Patterson convinced the city council to provide fiber optic as an essential city service.

“We’re not doing any of the service,” Patterson said. “We recognize the fiber as the utility. We are democratizing critical infrastructure.”

Direct Communications (DirectComm) of Rockland, Idaho; Fybercomm of Idaho Falls and SumoFiber of Centerville, Utah, are the ISPs leasing fiber on the city network. Sumo does not have any fiber of its own.

“Sumo would not be here without our fiber,” Patterson said.

Ammon first outfitted The Cottages, The Villages, Stonehaven and  Mountain Valley neighborhoods after enough residents said at public hearings that they wanted the city’s fiber. The city established a Local Improvement District known as LID1 to pay for the project. Each homeowner tapping into the city system was charged either $2,955 upfront or could pay $198 a year for 20 years, Patterson said.

LID1 got buy-in from 273 of 380 homeowners or 72 percent. Mitchell noted Brigham City’s 30 percent buy-in had been considered impressive.

“There is more social cohesion in Ammon,” Mitchell said.

Ammon started fiber construction in the second local improvement district in April in the Cottonwood Hills, Founders Pointe and Eagle Pointe neighborhoods involving 375 homes. The fiber optic to the first home was turned on July 7 and LID2 should be complete by November, Patterson said.

He expects the cost per homeowner in LID2 to be $3,300 but the actual cost won’t be known until the work is completed.

Patterson said a residential customer using the Ammon fiber optic has a typical monthly internet bill of about $58 for 1 gigagbyte service – $16.50 for the LID, $16.50 operations cost and about $25 for the ISP, though depending on the ISP plan chosen that can vary from $9.99 to $109.

“Open access dramatically lowers the cost of service,” Mitchell said. “Most places 1 gig costs $70 to $100.”