The city of West Plains, Missouri, is now offering high-quality fiber connectivity up to 1 Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second to local businesses. The community is also exploring the possibility of a pilot project to a limited area of households as the city considers whether or not to also offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).
No Time To Dawdle
According to City Administrator Tom Stehn, the decision to move forward was prompted by the state legislature: first last year's HB 2078 and now by SB 186, which will be heard in committee tomorrow, Feb. 14th. City leaders decided to preserve their local authority by establishing a broadband utility and expanding a plan to improve local connectivity. Since they are up and operating now, they expect to be grandfathered in under the language of the statute.
Open For Business
The network is now serving the West Plains Senior Center and the Ozarks Small Business Incubator. Ozarks Medical Center may soon be on the network and, according to Stehn, the city is still deploying the network but wants to let local businesses know that it is up and running. Access from incumbent providers is available in West Plains, but prices are high and some local businesses report rates up to three times those paid for similar needs in urban areas. City leaders see the network as an economic development tool that will attract new businesses and will help control prices for existing businesses and keep rates in check for residents.
West Plains is home to approximately 12,000 people and the county seat in Howell County. The town is in the center of the county, which is located on the southern border. Missouri State University has a campus at West Plains with a number of Associate degree programs and the community has an airport, the Heart of the Ozarks Fairgrounds, and several private schools in addition to the public school system.
The proposed residential pilot project is still in the early stages and the city has not established a timeline. Stehn describes it as likely to serve about 50 residential and commercial properties for about 90 days to work out customer service and technical details. West Plains already owns and operates municipal electric and water utilities, giving it an edge with established personnel, trucks, and some infrastructure.
Pilot projects are increasingly becoming more common as a way to work out kinks, determine unique challenges, and prove the effectiveness of a project. Erwin, Tennessee, and Westfield, Massachusetts, started with pilot projects and have since expanded their networks due to high demand throughout the community.
Adjusting The Plan
According to an October 2015 West Plains Daily Quill article, the original plan was only to connect city buildings for better Internet access and to improve online security. As word about the project spread, however, residents and businesses began contacting city leaders to complain about their own options and request that the city consider a municipal broadband utility. The community established a study group and asked the community to complete a survey. The survey indicated that service in West Plains was unreliable and rates were continually rising. After researching options, the study group recommended that the city establish the broadband utility.
They began construction on the network on December 2015 and approximately 21 miles are completed. In addition to fiber connectivity for commercial customers, the city intends to offer Wi-Fi at locations around town. West Plains estimates the entire project costs will range from $13 - 15 million.
Image of the West Plains Opera House courtesy of 417 Magazine.