Following the lead of other small Idaho cities such as Ammon and Emmett, McCall is creating a fiber-optic infrastructure, Rapid McCall, to provide up to 1 gigabit per second internet service to homes by next summer.
McCall will install, own and manage an “open access” fiber backbone and fiber connections to homes, while service providers such as CenturyLink, Sparklight (formerly CableOne) and others would run their services over the network, explained Chris Curtin, information systems manager for McCall. The city will prioritize installing fiber based on homeowner interest, which it is gauging through a “heat map” that lets people sign up.
“Effectively, we are separating the physical infrastructure, the wires in the ground, from the service itself, the actual connectivity to the internet,” Curtin said. “If we had three or four different providers offering service in McCall, they all would use one network, as opposed to each installing infrastructure to your house.”
“It’s dangerously similar to Ammon,” said Andrew Mentzer, executive director of the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council.
Broadband as an economic development tool
Mentzer’s organization has been promoting the development of broadband internet in McCall since at least 2018, both to service local businesses and to encourage refugees from expensive cities such as Seattle and San Francisco to work remotely in McCall.
In fact, during the region’s third annual economic development summit, held in October 2018, participants agreed the lack of sufficient broadband internet was the community’s biggest barrier to economic and community development. In May, the organization held a four-hour meeting to focus on improving broadband internet in the region.
But the Rapid McCall project is, for now, focusing on homeowners, Curtin said. Businesses typically have higher use, so the rates will likely be higher, but the city hasn’t developed pricing for businesses yet, he said.
On summer weekends, primarily due to the influx of people, both traditional internet and cellular data are almost unusable, Curtin said.
“It’s one of the biggest concerns we have going up here,” he said. “Whenever we do a survey and talk with the citizenry, it’s the No. 1 or No. 2 most-cited issue.”
How do you pay for it?
McCall is setting up a local improvement district to fund development of the network.
“It’s an opt-in model,” Curtin said.
People who want the service sign up for it, and the city installs a fiber connection to their home. The result could be that two neighborhoods side-by-side might have different pricing depending on the number of people who sign up, he said. In general, though, it will cost about $15 per month for access to the backbone and $15 per month, over a 20-year period, to pay for the hookup to the house.
Alternatively, people could pay $3,000 upfront for the house hookup, Curtin said. In addition, the hookup is considered a lien on the house, so when a house is sold, the hookup is paid for out of the proceeds, meaning that future owners of the house won’t have the $15 per month charge, he said.
Some of the backbone is already there, linking city services such as the water treatment plant and City Hall, Curtin said. The city added extra “dark fiber” and conduit when it was working on roads this summer, using its “dig once” policy.
McCall will be responsible for maintaining the network and, if a problem is determined to be from the service provider rather than hardware, it will do a “warm handoff” to transfer the homeowner to the right person at the service provider, Curtin said. This avoids a finger-pointing situation where the city and the service provider each blame the other for an outage.
Compared with current services, which in best case are 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 15 Mbps upload, the new service is likely to be ten times faster for $10 to $15 less per month, Curtin said.